On our last road trip in the first week of September, Devon & I decided to do something we’ve never done before… we stayed in hotels the whole trip… sort of our own version of “glamping’. With four hotels booked for our annual trek down to Moab UT, we now had a time line & goals for each leg of our journey. No pressure at all for us since Devon is a champ behind the wheel & we always make good time. I shouldn’t be surprised but seeing her drive for ten hours straight is still impressive.
These stops, chosen randomly, allowed us to see & visit new places. One such place is the Old Idaho State Penitentiary, said to be the most haunted place in all of U.S. The prison, decommissioned in 1973, has been featured on several occult & afterlife programs. This was on our list of places to visit and it’s been on Devon’s radar for at least a year.
Driving down Old Penitentiary Road the area surrounding the prison is Mayberry-esk. It’s shocking to see how close to civilians the prison actually is. We were expecting it to be way out in some field surrounded by nothing. The manicured acreage & well maintained foliage belies the horrors behind the 17 foot walls. There’s a spooky feeling just pulling up to a parking stall. After asking a nice lady in a kiosk about the entrance, she points us in the opposite direction & we walk our way up the end of the road to the front doors. The hand carved stone gutters and sidewalks are a physical reminder of the hard labour the convicts were subjected to. Their punishment left behind a rugged beauty for visitors to enjoy today. Stepping up to & passing through the main entrance, you are greeted by two employees who welcome you to the prison. After visiting a small room on the left with well laid out poster boards & stories about well and lesser known prisoners, you enter the prison theatre where they’re viewing a short movie about the origins of the pen. Stepping back into the room & once again out into the main building you’re then given a map & are left to begin the self guided walking tour.
This is arguably the coolest & creepiest tour we’ve ever taken. Walking down a long pathway through a tidy green space we enter the first building on our right, cell house 2. Build in 1899, this housed cons in two-man cells. Each containing a “honey bucket” as a toilet. Upon our first look inside we can see that this was run down with obvious signs of a fire. The inmates rioted over living conditions & burned down several buildings in 1973. This was one of the few you were able to enter. The other side of the building was still condemned & boarded up. Devon stepped into the first cell & immediately felt an overwhelming sense of foreboding apprehension. When I stepped inside the cell, I was struck by a sense of unbearable sadness. There was definitely a chill in the air. We walked to the far side of the building & took some pictures of the burnt out upper tier then we made our way back outside & on to the next building.
This was possibly the eeriest building we entered. The only maximum security building on site, this was a place of great sorrow & a permanent place of solitary confinement. There was nothing out of the ordinary on the first level of the building. Considered to be one of the more modern buildings, it had running water. There was a shower built into one of the walls where prisoners were forced to shower out in the open, in full view of other convicts. It was only when we made our way upstairs that Devon & I both felt an incredible sense of intense creepiness. The hair on the back of our necks stood straight up. We both felt a temperature change when we ascended the stairs to the upper tier. To the left was the dreaded death row. Only seven cells, each one outfitted with the sole occupant’s worldly possessions: a pack of cigarettes, some chewing gum, a deck of playing cards, a small radio & a tv. This was all these poor individuals had. The stark contrast between their meager belongings & our seemingly opulent lives arrives like a hard smack to the face. Left of death row was the gallows, every bit as creepy as it sounds. Below that, the drop room. Although this building wasn’t in use very long & closed promptly after it’s first & only casualty of capital punishment met his end, a heavy sense of unending dread clung to the air as though it had stood the test of time ad infinitum.
Old Idaho State Penitentiary was in operation for 101 years and is home to more stories with sad endings than you or I could imagine. More lives ended in the famed rose garden (six in all) than in the gallows (just one). Building number one housed the two cruelest spaces on the pens soil, the Cooler & Siberia. These were solitary confinement. The cooler, meant for singular occupancy, had cells which held 4-6 men. Siberia, built in 1926 on the other end of the building, housed twelve 3′ x 8′ cells with one inmate per cell. I stepped inside one of these cells; cramped, damp, with crude drawings etched into the walls & no windows to speak of. These cells were so small I could touch both walls with my arms outstretched. They were pitch black when the doors were closed & offered no comfort. Siberia was the last place you wanted to do your time. An untimely death would have been met with open arms rather than time there. Although the penitentiary had walls just 17 feet high, very few prisoners attempted escape. One inmate made it over the walls & down the length of Old Penitentiary Road where he managed to remove his leg iron. Upon removal of his shackles, he promptly sat down & awaited his capture & return to the pen. His leg iron is now on display in the museum at the prison.
Devon & I enjoyed our visit to the penitentiary. It was worth the trip there with plenty of stories & sorrows. I can understand why photographers go there as each building offers a different take on prison life. Some colourful, some bleak. If given the opportunity, I would definitely visit the place again. Some sites deserve more time & in a prison, all you have is time.