Old Idaho Penitentiary

Administration building, Old Idaho Penitentiary, ca. 1910. Prisoners quarried the stone used to construct this building, the prison walls, and more than a dozen other structures at the prison. ISHS 68-57.57. The "New Cellhouse" at the Old Idaho Penitentiary, ca. 1912. ISHS 68-57.61.

The early history of the American West is popularly associated with crime such as mining frauds, grand theft, horse and cattle rustling, and stagecoach holdups. Living outside the boundaries of a central authority, farmers and miners and merchants in what was to become Idaho Territory found themselves with conditions that favored organized gangs and individual criminals.

One of the first responses of settlers was to form vigilante groups, which banished lesser offenders and used lynchings to punish others. With signing of the Organic Act of 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln, Idaho Territory received recognition of its sovereignty and county jails at Idaho City and Lewiston were designated as temporary territorial prisons.

Regional rivalries within Idaho caused some friction and delay in selecting a site for a permanent territorial prison, as they had in locating the territorial capital. When plans submitted by a Prison Commission were held up in the Territorial Legislature, an enterprising Boise merchant jumped claim to the preferred site by erecting a house on the property in a single night. Castigated by his customers and the press, the merchant saved face by deeding his claim to the territorial government. In 1869, the Ada County Commissioners (with the consent of the U.S. Department of the Interior) officially selected the site east of Boise for the prison. A ready supply of high-grade quarry stone was a deciding factor in the location.

The General Land Office in Boise was asked to supervise construction at the prison, which began officially on April 4, 1870. A ceremony for the laying of the cornerstone was held on July 4, 1870 -- a decision the local newspaper noted as ironic because it represented creation of a prison on Independence Day.

Convict labor was used for much of the construction that took place over more than a decade at the site. The Dining Hall and a cell house (Two House) were designed by prisoners.

With special value placed on agricultural labor by many penitentiary wardens, such additions as wooden barns, stables, a slaughterhouse, irrigation ditches, orchards, and poultry houses were built outside the prison walls. Farmlands immediately adjacent to the original site were annexed and cultivated and the prison was able to supply much of its own foodstuffs, as well as that for the state's insane asylum at Nampa and for the Veteran's Home in Boise.

Over its century of operation, the penitentiary received more than 13,000 convicts, of whom 215 were women. Spurred in part by conditions that sparked a general riot in 1971 and an even more severe riot in 1973, the inmate population was moved to a modern penitentiary south of Boise and the Old Idaho Penitentiary was closed on December 3, 1973.

Courtesy Idaho State Historical Society