Old Idaho Penitentiary, Boise

Leaving Twin Falls this morning we are headed up Hwy 84 towards Washington.

Boise, Idaho – land of the potato. We stopped here for lunch and a quick trip to the Old Idaho Penitentiary State Historic Site.

In the 1870's with the gold mine boom, crime began to be on the uprise and so with nowhere to house these criminals the Territorial Prison came into being.

The turnkey building or administration building (the entrance to the penitentiary museum) was built in 1893. He turnkey guard made sure other guards attending the yard and inmates could keep an eye on how long guards were out there and if they had been out there too long would go to find out where and if anything had happened to them.


He also controlled the wait/walk and gate entrance for prisoners who were seeking entry for visitation.

1870's with the mining also brought more crime, so the territorial building was built in 1870.

Over the 101 year history there were 500 hundred escape attempts but only 90 were successful. If they didn't get out of Idaho Territory as per Al Priest (?) then it wasn't considered successful, even though he was more than some 200miles west of the penitentiary.


The 2 House (North Wing) was built in 1899 but held no prisoners until 1911. If I have it right, the 3 House (South Wing) also built in 1899 only housed prisoners in the early 1920's.

The first was your more 'rustic' prison experience. Two per cell, one chamber pot also known as a 'honey bucket' (eeeww!) in those days. No sanitation or plumbing it housed 160 inmates, so 80 honey buckets, that could be thrown at guards if they weren't careful and 4 floors, low railings, guards had to be on their guard of being pushed off the balcony also. Heating and cooling was next to non existent.

The second gave prisoners a more comfortable feel with amenities including plumbing and heating. Pastel colours to the cell walls were introduced in the hopes of having calming effects on prisoners.

It also included a private barber cell so inmates didn't have access to scissors and razors etc if out in the open. The guards would have to let each inmate in and out of the barber cell, pat them down before allowing to re enter the general cells.


The dining hall built in 1898 was designed by inmate George Hamilton. It was said that if he did a good job for the warden he would obtain an early release. Of course he did do a beautiful job. It contained a plunge bath for 6-8 men at a time, storerooms, a bakery and the main dining hall.

The dining hall in those days contained long dining tables. Prisoners were not allowed to speak to each other or even turn their heads and was the same into the early 1900's when they changed it to round tables and allowed conversation.

Hamilton got his release but was told he must leave Idaho and was never to return again. Now whether he got out and the. Realised he didn't know what to do outside of prison life, or the thought of not returning to Idaho it is said that the day before he was to catch a train after being released, he actually committed suicide.


Where the rose garden is now situated, used to be the gallows. Ten executions by hanging were carried out at the penitentiary and six were carried out in this garden.

The building known as Siberia was for prisoners put into solitary confinement. If you ended up there you were stripped of all clothing except for felt slippers. The hole in the floor was the toilet and the hole in the ceiling was your only air and light. It's narrow about twice my width and prob 6ft in length. The longest confinement was 7 months. An inmate was given his oatmeal one morning and when dishes were taken away he kept a his spoon and wouldn't give it back. So the guards said he would stay in until the spoon was returned. Seven months later he gave the spoon back and was allowed out.


The youngest inmates to serve here were 10 and 11. The 10yr olds father owned a bar and got into a fight with a patron. When his Dad asked for his gun the kid decided he could do one better, got the gun and actually shot the guy. The Warden took pity on him, so instead of being in with the general population he was allowed to live with the Warden's family on the prison grounds. He became a good baseball player on the grounds and I think the tour guide said that when the warden left the prison the young man was not re incarcerated. Missed the last bit of that part of the story.

In the 1950's cell block inmates were able to have a little more freedom, they were allowed their choice of colours (if all 4 inmates could agree) on their cell walls. They also had better access to leather crafting and woodworking tools, hence the padded headboards and toilet seats etc.

They had a basketball team and a baseball team. The 'away' games ceased after one inmate jumped from a train during an away game so after that their were only ever 'home' games. Both teams were the 'Outlaw's' and that name still stands with one of the parks or stadiums today.


Anyway after the outlaw jaunt in Boise we made a pit stop in Nampa. We were going to go to the Warhawk Museum but of course it's Monday! Bloody well shut! Hopefully we will get back there to see it. So headed onwards to Baker City, Oregon. The home of the Oregon Trail and a hundred historic buildings.


This is where we will spend the night before heading up the road further and into Washington by tomorrow night.

See ya!

Kat xo






2 responses to “Old Idaho Penitentiary, Boise

  1. You have a few of your facts mixed up. For example, the youngest inmates, 10 and 11 years old. The 10 year old lived with the warden in his house as they did not want to put a 10 year old in with the general prison population. He serves about a year and was released. The 11 year old was Jimmie. He was convicted of murdering his mother. She wanted him to stay home and help her with her chores, such as the laundry. He wanted to go out in the farm and work in the fields with the men. He smarted off to her, she disciplined him, he got mad and shot and killed her. He served a little over 10 years, and lived with the trustees in their dormitory. Jimmie was the one who was on the baseball team when he was about 15. If you plan on writing an article about a tour, you might want to pay closer attention.

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