Old Idaho State Penitentiary in Boise, ID

Photo © Idaho Tourism

Exploring the penitentiaries of yesteryear may not be everyone’s idea of a good time. But take a spin through some of the world’s most infamous Big Houses and you’ll undoubtedly confess that they are some of the most fascinating—and shocking—tours you’ll ever take. The Northwest’s prime example is the Old Idaho State Penitentiary, situated just east of Boise, now preserved as an important slice of history by the Idaho State Historical Society.

Open for self-guided tours, the prison began as a single-cell in 1870. Some of the West’s most dangerous desperadoes quarried stone from nearby hills to construct the beginnings of the fortress-like structure you see today, which opened in 1872. Over the decades, until the 1950s, the penitentiary expanded, building by building.

Inside, a somber mood reigns within the confines of the 17-foot walls as you wander through cell blocks, solitary confinement, death row, the gallows chamber and the open grounds, including a rose garden, which once served as the gallows yard.
The relatively small prison housed a maximum of 600 convicts at a time in cramped quarters until it finally closed in 1973 after riots erupted over living conditions and a fire damaged much of the facility. Today, graffiti and messages scrawled on walls survive as the voices of long-gone inmates who called the Old Idaho State Penitentiary home.

For information about touring the Old Idaho State Penitentiary, go to history.idaho.gov/old-idaho-penitentiary. To plan a visit to Boise, go to boise.org.