Idaho Big House

We're still here! Despite our ever-lessening blogging tempo, we have a batch of fresh posts on the way (let's face it. The blogosphere peaked long ago, and RR was never much to brag about even during the golden era of blogging. So from now on we'll be limiting postings to unique places or experiences, like Idaho). First up: the Idaho State Penitentiary, one of three remaining territorial prisons still standing despite the erosion of time and neglect.... just like this blog!

Built in 1872, the Idaho State Pen housed 600 inmates at a time, for a total of 13,000 before closing in 1973. All 13,000 entered through the bars of this sallyport entrance and upon completion of their term, walked out this same gate. Lifers left in coffins of course, as did 10 inmates executed by hangman's noose in the rose garden.

High sandstone walls with rifle towers rim the complex, which housed several dorms, a hospital, dining hall, commissary, and laundry facilities. The rocks were cut and hauled from local quaries and meticulously placed by the hands of.... you guessed it.... inmates. Building the walls of your own prison must be one of the more disheartening things a man can do with himself.

When the prison closed in 1973, the Department of Corrections transferred the property to the Idaho State Park system, which greatly benefitted the facility's preservation. Unlike many other historical prisons which were dismantled, looted, or simply fell victim to neglect, the facilities at the Idaho State Pen are in the same condition as the day the last prisoners left.

Many cells look as if the residents had just left for recreation time in the yard.... soda cans and cigarrette butts sit on makeshift card playing tables; toothbrushes and shaving razors stand in cups along the sinks. The only sign of abandonment is the peeling paint, although not to say it wasn't already peeling in 1973.

Throughout the prison are photographs and stories of some of the more notable inmates. Like Henry Wilmbusse, who served a life sentence for killing the judge who previously committed him to an insane asylum. The brief vignettes offer insight into the people who occupied the often violent and lawless western frontier.

Scattered among the many cattle thieves and bank robbers are stories of the 200 women prisoners who served time at the prison. Like Mary Mills, Idaho's own "Typhoid Mary", sentenced for spreading VD. In the early days of the prison, women were actually mixed in with the men. Of course, predictable problems ensued, and so a womens dorm was built in 1905.

Even though the cells are empty and the washing machines sit idle and the only residents are the quiet ghosts of former inmates, it isn't difficult to imagine the constant commotion and clatter of when 600 prisoners occupied the prison. The best part of the visit: walking out the front gate, freely and without impedence, an event the 13,000 inmates of the Idaho State Penitentiary could only dream about.

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