Old Idaho State Penitentiary inside a cell block

On my Oregon Trail journey I had arrived in Boise, Idaho and took an interesting tour of The Old Idaho State Penitentiary.

It was to turn into a very thought provoking tour that would take me back to time when prisoners were treated in a very different way; to a time when the state of Idaho was just a Territory.

I found the tour gave incredible insight into the justice of the 19th and 20th century of this part of America.

Social Wellness Walks


20 years before Idaho became a state, the first building here, a Territorial Prison, was built for the Territory of Idaho in 1870. In fact, Idaho had only been a territory for 7 years at that point.

It became a functional prison from 1872 and it surprised me, looking at the condition of the place, that it was used for 101 years and still had inmates in 1973.

entrance facade to old idaho state pententiary

Throughout those 101 years it housed over 13,000 inmates, including men, women and children.

In 1973 the prison closed after a series of big riots – riots about conditions mainly, and now that I have wandered through some of the blocks and cells, I can see where conditions must have been quite terrible. Frozen in time, remnants of human occupation remain within the buildings and on the walls.

Built of sandstone with no real ventilation, the hot summers made the cells feel like cramped ovens, and in winter there was no adequate heating.

looking into a cell

What started out as a single block, became this complex of buildings built over time. Built by the inmates, much less, and the stone was also mined by the inmates themselves.

idaho prison block stairs

It astounded me that it wasn’t until 1906 that a specific women’s block was built. Until then there was no male/female segregation at all.

The Growing Prison

As the population grew the prison grew. Plus there are many tales of persecutions of certain peoples.

For instance, a block of 80 cells had to be added in 1889. US Marshal Fred Dubois made it his mission to arrest and imprison hundreds of polygamists of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, aka The Mormons.

extra cell block for polygamists

This led to overcrowding and became just one of the reasons the prison kept on growing.

newer block of old idaho state penitentiary

Solitary Confinement

These cells I have shown you so far are nothing. There is solitary confinement and then there was the super solitary confinement area, with the nickname ‘Siberia’.

Siberia was a place no prisoner wanted to end up. Freezing cold, a dark windowless row of cells, each for one man.

The solitary confinement cells measure only 6 foot long and 3 and a half feet wide. A small hole in the ceiling gave a small shaft of light, and a hole in the floor was made for water and human waste.

solitary confinement cell idaho old state penitentiary

Imagine being thrown in here without knowing if or when you would get out.

Many were lucky to spend only a few days or weeks continuously locked up in Siberia. Some, though, were kept in these cells for up to 18 months!

Yes, up to 18 months! The result was often absolute insanity or suicide. Graffiti on the walls here and tales of mad screaming from ex guards tell of a harsh, very harsh reality.

an old solitary cell

It was, of course, better to behave and stay out of this frightening block. But Siberia was in use right up to the 1960s. I think a normal modern solitary cell or maximum security would be like luxury by comparison.

Death Row and The Gallows

One of the more slowly decaying buildings brings home the justice system of its times. The building where death row prisoners were held and met their demise.

death row cells

We passed through a Rose Garden outside where most of the 10 executions took place over the time the prison was operational.

Eventually an indoor gallows was built next to death row. It was only ever used once, in 1957, on a man named Ray Snowden. This man was also dubbed the ‘Idaho Jack The Ripper,’ having stabbed a woman 30 times as she died.

Within the death row cells he would live every last day he had until, in the very next room, he would die.

He was brought from death row, and not given a chance to offer last words. Then, when the trap door was opened it took over 15 minutes for him to be slowly strangled to death by the rope due to an error made when constructing noose.  

trapdoor for the gallows idaho

A witness room had been built too so you could see the hanging, but not the body suffering as you would do in the image above.

the gallows witness room


One thing I had heard of before I entered the old prison, was that there were many tales of hauntings.

Many visitors talk about the feeling of being touched or grabbed as they approach a now empty prison cell. Others have heard whispering as they walk through the empty buildings. Some have told how their hair has been pulled violently as they pass by empty old cells.

The biggest name in hauntings is Raymond Snowden himself. Hung terribly here, his spirit is said to walk the cell complex day and night

cell block at idaho old penitentiary

Notable Prisoners

The Idaho Old State Penitentiary would not have lasted as long as it did without a trickle of notable characters passing through, beyond Raymond Allen Snowden.

Lyda Southard – Perhaps the prison’s most famous female prisoner was the serial killer that is Lyda Southard. As she went through life, her 4 husbands and some children died. They were found to have died of arsenic poisoning, and Lyda was convicted of killing them all to collect their life insurance payments.

Harry Orchard – He was convicted for one of the most high profile killings of the first 10 years in 20th century America. In 1905 he killed Idaho Governor, Frank Steunenberg by a bombing with dynamite. There was plenty of miner labour violence at the time and Harry became a killer by wreaking vengeance on mine owners.

maximum security cells

The Museum

Today the Idaho Old City Penitentiary stands as a museum. The past is the past and cannot be erased. Prisoners were treated inhumanely throughout those 101 years and much of that comes down to the times they lived in.

ankle strap idaho prison

This was, of course, a different kind of stop I had on the Oregon Trail. It was both sobering and a great learning experience.

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  1. Lynne Gray says:

    Wow, the word Siberia just took on a whole new meaning!
    What an incredible experience

    1. Paul Steele says:

      Hi Lynne, Very thought provoking seeing it I can assure you.

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