Enjoying an Old Prison in a New Way

Old Idaho State Penitentiary

There was a time when these cells were full. The voices of guards and inmates carried down the halls, mixing with the iron bars and doors closing. The inmate sitting in silence and darkness, locked away in solitary confinement. Or the telltale sound of an iron ball and chain dragging across the ground, locked to an inmate’s ankle. The cells were cramped and barren. Even the guards weren't afforded much luxury. The cells have long since been empty, and the cell blocks and halls are now silent. Today, people fill the old prison, but they aren't inmates.

The Old Idaho Penitentiary is well over one hundred years old. But it still stands, a testament to more trying times, and a different kind of criminal. It was built in 1870. The first inmates entered its cells in 1872. Built from sandstone, it finally closed its doors in 1973, 101 years after it first opened them. It still stands today, a monument to Idaho’s prison system. There over 30 buildings that are a part of the complex, and today, it also houses exhibits like the J. Curtis Earl Memorial Exhibit of Arms and Armaments.

Exploring the “Old Pen”

While you won’t find any inmates here, you will find history all around. You can explore the old cells, and even the old guard walkways. These were neat, because the prison cells contained two-way mirrors. Through narrow walkways between sets of cells, the guard could keep an eye on the inmates without being seen.

The cells are small, probably smaller than prison cells today. And you can imagine what it would have been like being a prisoner in solitary confinement. You can check out solitary confinement, and just being alone in that small, windowless room makes you wonder how anyone could stand being in there. It makes sense that it was a punishment inmates would want to avoid.

There are guided tours available, if you don’t feel like going on a self-guided tour. However, the guided tours tend to be more for educational purposes, and they run from the fourth grade to college level. To add to the educational experience, there is a scavenger hunt you can do, that will lead you through the prison and the different exhibits.

If you want to dive a little deeper into the history of the Old Idaho Penitentiary, the inmate records are available either online, or for purchase at the commissary, along with other items and souvenirs. These records detail the operational history of the Old Idaho Penitentiary, as well as statistics on the types of crimes committed, and a full record of the inmates and their sentences.

Events and Activities

While I recommend you visit the Old Idaho Penitentiary and enjoy one of the tours, that’s not all the old prison has to offer. They have a full calendar of events throughout the year. To stay up to date, check out the Idaho State Historical Society’s website. This year, they’re starting their first Valentine’s event. It’s called Escaping Solitary, and it’s a Pre-Valentine’s Day mixer for people 21 and over. It’s a great place to take your friends, or to meet new ones. It’s an event you’ll be sure to remember at a great, historical location.

If you want to encourage the ghost hunter in you, they also have an event planned with the International Paranormal Reporting Group. Bring your camera and test your ghost hunting mettle. The popular television show, “Ghost Adventures,” once investigated the Old Idaho Penitentiary, and you’ll able to watch that episode if you go to Escaping Solitary. Ghosts and prisons just seem to go together.

Location, Location, Location

The best part about the Old Idaho Penitentiary, though, is that it’s located in Boise, Idaho. Idaho has a lot to offer, and the best part is that it’s all right in your backyard. From the great outdoors to historical landmarks, Idaho is a great place to live. It has beautiful scenery, and plenty of opportunities if you’re looking for an outdoor lifestyle. Boise is perfect, because it’s a balance of big city life and the great outdoors. Adventure is waiting right in your backyard, and even if you don’t like the outdoors all the time, there are still plenty of great places, like the Old Idaho Penitentiary, where you can visit the past, and still make it home in time for dinner.

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