Pulling onto the gravel road that ran between cottages and the old prison walls, it looked something that had been typecast for a Hollywood western.
Finding a parking spot in front of a building marked “Guard House”; I turned the key and got out. Reaching into the back seat to get my gear bag, I glance across the narrow street at the old sandstone building. Above the door was a sign that read, “Idaho State Penitentiary, Administration”.
Lighting a cigarette as the wind whipped around the corner of the prison walls, I thought I could hear for a second the voices of the thousands of men and women who had called this small patch of ground home for a season.
Founded in 1870 the prison housed over 10,000 inmates before it finally shut down in 1973. Five hundred prisoners attempted escape, only 90 made it. Ten men were hung inside its wall and countless others killed in fights, by suicide or daring to step into the dreaded “no man’s land” inside the twenty-foot tall walls.
I had been in Idaho for a few weeks shooting social justice stories for United Vision for Idaho, photographing wildfires for CNN and generally submitting everything I could to my editors at The Examiner. When The Idaho Historical Society found out I was close by, they contacted me to find out if I’d have any interest in doing a story on the Old Idaho State Penitentiary.
Wish visions from my youth of Roy Rogers turning the bad guys over to the warden at a Territorial Prison in Wyoming, Colorado, Texas or New Mexico, I told them let-me-think-about-it-yes.
Amber Beierle, Education Specialist and Visitor Services Manager for “the pen” was my point of contact at the prison and as I finished off the cigarette in the parking lot I strolled over to the administration building to find her.
After meeting Amber and getting my media pass I walked through the original steel sliding bar door and into the prison yard. Sitting my bag down, I surveyed the situation and dialed the gear in.
Walking along the twenty foot wide dirt path inside the walls, I passed the rose garden; site of the original gallows where 6 men were hung two of them within minutes of each other; the prison laundry; the original building that was converted into a chapel and then burned in the 1973 riot; solitary confinement where men were held 23 hours a day in a 3 x 8 foot cell; the cafeteria that served 250 men at once and also was destroyed in the ’73 riot; the old barbershop and a host of other buildings that were open and free to explore at will.
After two hours of alternating between wandering and wondering I left the prison; wondering what life must’ve been like for the prisoners here in the high desert of Idaho were temperatures in the shade often reached into the hundreds; wondering how people left in solitary confinement – some for as long as four years – didn’t go mad and wondering why more of them didn’t.
As I left the prison grounds, the heavy steel door shut behind me and I shivered as I thought of the men and women who were on the other side of those walls when the doors shut tight on their freedom.
Click here to see a slide show of the rest of the photos I took that day
The Old Idaho State Penitentiary is located at 2200 Warm Springs Ave., in Boise, Idaho. Enclosing 510 acres, the prison was built by an unknown architect from 1870 – 1872. The site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on July 17, 1974.
Currently operated by the Idaho State Historical Society, the prison is open for visitors from 10:30am until 5pm with the last admission happening at 4:15pm Memorial Day through Labor Day and is closed on most state holidays. Call (208) 334-2844 for more information.
Jerry Nelson is a freelance adventure photographer and traveling photojournalist. His work has appeared in CNN, CBS, USAToday, Upsurge and numerous others.
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