A window into the not-so-distant and none-too-glorious past of America’s prison system, the Old Boise Penitentiary is probably the city’s most popular historical site. Up until a riot forced its closure in 1973, the Old Pen is where Idaho’s worst criminals came to serve their time, get shanked and wait for the gallows.
The prison opened in 1872 when Idaho was still a territory, and was in use for almost exactly 100 years. A stay here was no cakewalk. The Pen is as cold, cramped and harsh as morally tolerable: tiny cots packed two to a room, buckets instead of toilets, isolation holes and even an on-site gallows.
A self-guided tour leads you around the grounds, through the cell blocks, and into the recreation yards, the laundry room, and the bone-chilling isolation chambers. There are exhibits and historical information posted throughout the Old Pen, all of it fascinating. You can read about the more notorious inmates, and how they were executed. There’s a section about the female prisoners of the Pen, one about prison weapons, and a gallery of inmate tattoo art. Admirably, the Old Pen doesn’t shy away from stories which cast a negative light on the penitentiary system — we read about the racism of territorial Idaho, when a Chinese man was imprisoned for months on the charge of “an excessive appetite for chicken”.
There are over a dozen buildings to explore, and we started at the old cement cellblocks. The temperature dropped noticeably when we stepped inside. Some of the cells were open and we entered, imagining being locked up here. Terrifying. The newest cell block, built in 1954, held the Death Row inmates and had a gallows built into the second floor; the condemned would drop through a hole in the ground into a “swinging room” on the first floor. Convenient.
The prison was abandoned following riots in 1973, and the cells were left untouched. Even today, they look just as they did almost forty years ago, just a bit more weather-beaten. Many are still infused with the character of their last tenant, with artwork, decorations, or witticisms carved into the wall, some of them touching, some banal, and many profane.
The Old Pen is one of Boise’s top highlights; we spent hours there, making it well worth the $5 cost of entry.