Tuesday, March 21, 2017

New Idaho Territorial Penitentiary Opens Near Boise [otd 03/21]

On March 21, 1872, the Idaho Tri-Weekly Statesman reported, “We understand that the Territorial prisoners are to be brought down to-day and placed in the penitentiary, under the charge of the U. S. Marshal.”
Boise County Jail.
Idaho City Historical Foundation.

This move initiated the use of a new Territorial Penitentiary in Boise City, Idaho. Eleven prisoners previously held in the Boise County jail in Idaho City became its first inmates.

When Congress created Idaho Territory in 1863 [blog, March 4], the region had no penitentiary. Thus, Territorial prisoners were housed at county jails in Lewiston and Idaho City. Three years later, officials moved all such prisoners to the Idaho City unit.

Accounts of the time indicate that the jail was, at best, a marginal facility [blog, Dec 31]. Finally, in early 1867, the Idaho Territorial Delegate to the U. S. Congress persuaded that body to appropriate funds for a prison. However, two years passed before the Territorial legislature saw fit to enact a process to certify and use the planned structure. Construction began in the spring of 1870, and was complete about a year later.

Another year passed before officials could plan the transfer of prisoners to the new facility. They had to work out the details of who would have charge of the operation, and who would pay for what. Initially, the serving U. S. Marshal for Idaho Territory acted as prison warden.

Still, as a Federal facility, the new penitentiary housed convicts sent there by both Federal and Territorial courts. This helped spread the fixed costs over a larger population. H. T. French noted that the arrangement provided “a great saving to the territory over its previous outlay for the care of law breakers.”

In 1885, the Territorial legislature created a separate Prison Commission. This three-member Commission watched over the budget and operation of the prison, and eventually had authority to investigate complaints about conditions at the facility. A year later, the prison received a donation of books to start a library. The library also subscribed to current newspapers and magazines, and made them available to the inmates.

In 1890, the Federal government turned the penitentiary over to the newly-admitted state of Idaho. According to Hawley’s History, “On August 1, 1890, there were seventy-five prisoners in the penitentiary, six of whom were United States prisoners.”
Idaho State Penitentiary, ca. 1918. J. H. Hawley photo.
Over a period of years, the Penitentiary grounds and facilities were expanded and officials implemented numerous upgrades.

One major improvement was the construction of a massive outer wall. Prisoners who had been taught stone masonry actually cut sandstone from quarries east of the prison, then they and the other prisoners assembled the wall. The Idaho Statesman noted (July 12, 1894) that “The convicts at the penitentiary will have a holiday today in honor of the completion of the new stone wall.”

The state operated the facility until 1973, when all the prisoners were transferred to a modern new prison about ten miles south of Boise. That same year, the "Old Pen" was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, the site is open to the public under the management of the Idaho State Historical Society.
Reference]: [French], [Hawley]
"Old Idaho Penitentiary," National Register of Historic Places, National Park Service.
Rachel S Johnstone, Inmates of the Idaho Penitentiary 1864-1947, Idaho State Historical Society, Boise (2008).

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