Old Idaho Penitentiary

August 18, 2016 –  jaildsc_6989Nope, it’s not a castle; it’s a prison.

This is the Old Idaho Penitentiary.  Although a historic site now, it was an operating prison from 1872 to 1973.  It’s first building, called the Territorial Prison, was built in 1870, before Idaho was a state.  In all, more than 7,500 prisoners spent time here, ranging in age from 10 to 82.

jail20160818_123931Daughter Rebecca, with grandsons Preston (left), Julian (middle) and Zach (right) – and the other way below


Some views from the outside …

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jaildsc_7030 On the  wall at the right of the stairs, note the sign “LINE–UP SINGLE FILE” and on the wall to the left of the blue door (click on the picture to enlarge) you can see the sign near the inviting bench that says “BENCHS FOR GUARDS ONLY” … either this is intended to say “Bench S” or the guy who got the painting job couldn’t spell.  Below is a picture of the exercise yard.

And now, pictures of the inside …  not only are there bars and gates everywhere, but there is more than one story of cells, accessible via narrow staircases mostly off-limits today (thankfully).


We were there in August … but if you ever want to visit around Halloween, they have a special entertainment including haunted cells, actors dressed as past inmates. etc.

Below, Rebecca is studying the stories of the inmates of these numbered cells. Notice the sign allowing no inmates on the hall except for those “celling” there.  Apparently, “to cell” is a verb.

jaildsc_7019     signdsc_6996

Would you like to cell in here?  It certainly makes even the most crowded college dorm room look spacious, no?  Some of the cells were set up for single occupancy, while others were intended for up to 4 cell-mates, with 2 bunk beds on each side of the room. Note the room comes complete with a bed, table, sink, and toilet.


The boys were game to try out the cells … but pronounced them decidedly uncomfortable.

jaildsc_7004     cell20160818_130305


Some of the previous occupants of this penitentiary were not much more than children – and some actually were children.  I have pasted below the stories of some of the inmates which had been posted on the walls.   Click on each to enlarge it to read.

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charles-deedsc_6997    inmate20160818_125841


 tonydsc_7012a  inmate20160818_133226aa

inmate20160818_125806  inmalte20160818_130005

pettingillAn interesting case is Harvey Pettingill.  His crime is not specified except as an “Infamous Crime Against Nature”(*)  in a document called Inmates of the Idaho Penitentiary.  What I found interesting is that in 1937, shortly before the US entered WWII, the Idaho prosecutor advised the prison’s warden, as a member of the Eugenics Board, to use his authority to arrange to  have Harvey sterilized under the 1925 Eugenics Law because, it is noted, both his father (Leo) and brother-in-law were also criminals. Harvey’s picture with his parents is from findagrave.com

  • I have since found that the reference to “crimes against nature” is an old euphemism for unacceptable sexual behavior such as having anal sex (even with a willing partner) or sodomy.

As we all know from watching television, inmates can make weapons out of spoons, bits of glass, etc.  However, being kept locked up in  solitary confinement in the dark for months for refusing to return a spoon does seem a bit of an extreme punishment to me.  Nevertheless, this boy kept hold of that spoon for 7 months before returning it.  Are  your kids stubborn?  Are any of them THAT stubborn?


gallowsnoteThe last hanging in Idaho took place at the prison in 1957.  In 1978, the legal form of capital punishment was changed from hanging to lethal injection.  As you can see in the news clipping here, it was expected to be removed as a “bad influence on younger prisoners” … but perhaps someone else decided it may be a good influence on children who would prefer not to become prisoners.  When asked by Grandpa Tom what had impressed them the most at the Penitentiary, Preston was quick to answer:  The Gallows.   droproomdsc_7050

In the Witness Room is a door labeled the Drop Room.

In the ceiling of the Drop Room is a metal loop through which presumably the rope is threaded,  In the floor below it, there is a trap door.   In the room beneath, you can see Julian studying the mechanism which uses a weight and a stop.  The green hose looped on the wall is used for washing the room down after a hanging.

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gallowsHere you have a better view of the bottom of the trap door, the weight & stop, and the hose looped on the wall, which comprise the entire furnishings of the room.

Finally, before leaving, we visited the Gift Shop where we purchased Dennis the Cat, who had lived his whole life with the inmates and is buried on the grounds.  See the article about him written by inmate Ed Eline and published in The Clock, the prison’s newspaper.

Lastly, we drove down some lovely old Boise streets where we got a nice (if slightly lopsided) view of the Capital …  


… and then to the Cheesecake Factory for a belated birthday dinner in honor of both Rebecca (50) and me (71).

restaurant20160818_183034   restaurant20160818_191133


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