Old West Relives History Through Historic Jails

History & Heritage, Online Exclusives

Many western prisons and jails were built in the mid- and late- 1800s, long before electricity, air conditioning and inmate rights. Some of these institutions still stand and are reminders of the hardships of living and surviving the punishment meted out to lawbreakers during frontier times. Many of the buildings are now historic landmarks and visitor attractions, while others are home to museums displaying a town or region.

The Idaho Territory was less than ten years old when its territorial prison was built in 1870 east of Boise. The penitentiary grew from a single cell house into a complex of several distinctive buildings surrounded by a high sandstone wall. Convicts quarried the stone from the nearby ridges and completed all construction as it expanded throughout its history. During its century of operation, the penitentiary received more than 13,000 convicts, including 215 women. And, it had its share of personalities, including Butch Cassidy.

Life was very hard at this prison which had sparse facilities, heavy-handed authority and was void of most modern conveniences. One of the better inmate work duties was to be assigned to the 50-plus acre prison farm and nursery which produced most of the food for the institution. These grounds were located just outside the prison walls and are now part of the Idaho Botanical Gardens. Another positive aspect, and in contrast to the stark and barren prison atmosphere, was its nursery stock rose gardens which were planted for a commercial grower who was testing new varietals.

The conditions under which the inmates lived sparked a general riot in 1971 and an even more severe riot in 1973. The result of these conflicts was the closure of the old prison and the move of the entire population to a new facility located south of Boise. The Old Idaho Penitentiary is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and tours of the grounds and its rose gardens are available to the public. Various buildings are open, including some cell houses, the solitary confinement building, death row and the gallows. There are displays on the history of the prison as well as Idaho Transportation and the History of Electricity in Idaho.

A colorful aspect of the Old Wests lore is the desperados who, between their stealing and pillaging, spent a good amount of time in town jails and territorial prisons. Locking up the bad guys (and gals) was a part of the frontier justice system and, as history tells, the confines of prison had a far more ominous story than what has been depicted in old-west films about jail-bird legends.

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