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Old Idaho Penitentiary

The Old Idaho Penitentiary State Historic Site was a functional prison from 1872 to 1973. The first building, also known as the Territorial Prison, was constructed in the Territory of Idaho in 1870; the territory was seven years old when the prison was built, a full two decades before statehood.

From its beginnings as a single cell house, the penitentiary grew to a complex of several distinctive buildings surrounded by a 17-foot-high sandstone wall. The stone was quarried from the nearby ridges by the convicts, who also assisted in later constructions

Old Idaho State Penitentiary in Boise, ID.

During its 101 years of operation, the penitentiary received more than 13,000 inmates, with a maximum population of a little over 600 of which 215 of the inmates were women. Two famous inmates were Harry Orchard and Lyda Southard. Orchard assassinated former Governor Frank Steunenberg in 1905 and Southard was known as Idaho's Lady Bluebeard for killing several of her husbands to collect upon their life insurance.

Serious riots occurred in May of 1952 and August of 1971 and again in March of 1973 over living conditions in the prison. But it was that riot in March 1973 that had the most lasting effects. Inmates set fire to four buildings, burning the dining hall and chapel beyond repair. By the end of the year the remaining 416 resident inmates were moved to the new Idaho State Correctional Institution south of Boise and the Old Idaho Penitentiary was closed on December 3, 1973.

Despite being attractive on the outside, the earliest cell house, finished in January 1871, was just the opposite on the inside. Cold in the winter, oven-like in the summer, drab, dark, and claustrophobic year round, the cells did not even have forgotten conveniences such as electric lights and toilets. A second stone cell house, dubbed the "New Cell House", was completed in 1889, followed by a third building built in 1899 that was later cut in half to make what's now known as Cell House 2 and Cell House 3. These newer stone cell houses weren't much cozier than their predecessors, and Cell House 3 was actually condemned and not used until it was refurbished in 1928, making it the first cell house to have plumbing.

By the early 1950s, the prison population had grown and the stone cell houses had become terribly obsolete. The state then built Cell House 4 in 1952, followed in 1954 by the maximum security building (Cell House 5) that featured a hanging room and death row. As a nice precursor to modern times, only one man was ever hanged in the building (which didn't turn out too well, by the way), proving that the state has always been willing to spend a lot of our money so that lawyers and judges can have something to do. These two new buildings, the last to be built on the site, were constructed out of concrete and steel, making them as ugly on the outside as they were on the inside. On the inside, however, there are a couple significant differences between the early cell houses and Cell House 4. Cell House 4 has much better natural lighting and the walkways are much wider, whereas the early stone cell houses look like a 19th century Russian gulag.

The “Yard” is flanked by the newer cell houses. Death Row being located on the 2nd story of the cell house on the right.

Over its 100-year history as an active prison, ten executions were carried out at the Old Pen. Most occurred in the rose garden next to the dining hall. Raymond Snowden, the only man to die in the Cell House 5 indoor gallows, struggled at the end of a rope for almost 15 minutes before he finally died, proving that good executioners and noose makers are hard to find. There was also the odd violent death here and there.

The Penitentiary’s rose garden is impressive for a couple reasons. It started as a test garden in the 1800’s for Jackson & Perkins (still in business today). The garden was entirely tended to by the prisoners. It was also used as the site for 6 of the 10 people executed at the Penitentiary between 1901 and 1926. Wooden gallows were constructed in the northeast corner of the prison yard right behind the New Cell House and in full view of the surrounding hill side which crowds would flock to view the executions.

in 1934 the gallows were torn down for the final time as the warden felt its presence was a “bad influence” on the younger prisoners.

Cell House 4

Cell House 4

The solitary confinement building which was nicknamed “Siberia” was constructed in 1926. Housing twelve 3x8 foot cells. Inmates exhibiting bad behavior could spend anywhere for days to weeks here. Fed once a day and allowed to shower once a week with the only light coming from a small opening in the top of the cell.

The multipurpose building was constructed in 1923. Over the years it was used as a shirt factory, laundry, license plate shop, bakery, shoe shop, hobby room and also housed the communal shower room at the back of the building. At least one confirmed death occurred here during the August 1971 riot. Four days after the riot ended prison guards found the body of William Butler stabbed, beaten and rolled up inside a gym mat.

Communal Showers of the Old Idaho State Penitentiary

Before its construction, women did not have separate quarters. In 1905, inmates built the stone wall around the old Warden's residence. In 1920, Warden William Cuddy replaced the two old women's cell buildings with this "thoroughly modern dormitory." This building features a concrete floor and roof, seven two-person cells, one bathroom, a kitchen, and a central day room, which was furnished with comfortable chairs, rugs, and a phonograph. The walls and barred doors were painted white. Each cell - designed for two women in bunk beds - had a toilet, electric lights, windows, and a steel bar door. Steam heat came from the prison's central plant. The cells are so small that the two occupants had to take turns dressing and undressing. During the 1920s, a total of 17 women entered the prison. Their terms ranged from 37 days to over 20 years. Murderers Lyda Southard and Mary Crumroy spent 15 and 21 years here respectively.