Picturing the Old Idaho Penitentiary

October 30, 2014

A Book Review of Old Idaho Penitentiary

story by Rachel Holt

DwellsmallOld Idaho Penitentiary is a pictorial telling of the nearly 100 year history of the Old Idaho Penitentiary. The Old Pen is one of only 4 territorial prisons in the U.S. open to the public and features previously unpublished photographs and stories, biographies, and information on inmates, guards, wardens, and more. Written by local history enthusiasts Amber Beierle, Ashley Phillips, and Hanako Wakatsuki with the help of contributor Meghan Anderson, all the authors are current or former employees at the Old Idaho Penitentiary. The proceeds are going to a good cause as well: each author is donating all of their earnings to the Friends of the Historical Museum & Old Idaho Penitentiary.

The Old Idaho Penitentiary is just that, an old institution of Boise. Quietly nestled among the Foot Hills it is a common stop by locals and visitors alike. I must admit, despite having lived in this area my whole life I never thought much of the Pen or its history. I took a tour in the last few months and the buildings and information plaques seemed much like they had when I was a kid, until I read this book. The stories painted a richer picture of the penitentiary. From the photos and descriptions I could piece together my last visit to the site but with a fuller appreciation for all that had taken place within those walls. I was amazed by the things I never knew, like that the prisoners had their own baseball team called the Outlaws, or by the life stories of some of the people in the prison, including both prisoners and staff. To me, this book adds the missing piece in bringing the history and significance of the Old Penitentiary truly to life.

Each chapter focuses on a specific topic within the history of the Old Pen including the buildings, prisoners, and prison personnel, as well as a synopsis of the evolution of punishment within the prison. The chapters provide a brief summation of the theme at the beginning and provide a common narrative thread for the photos, which can jump around a bit between topics and eras. By and large the book achieves its goal of telling the very complicated and multifaceted story of the Idaho Penitentiary.

Amber Beierle, author and current Education Specialist at the Old Penitentiary says, “We want to make sure the stories are told. To me, the stories of the people of the penitentiary are the most fun. Their stories are the legacy of the penitentiary and historical society, and we want to share it.”

If you love history, if you love Idaho, or if you just love a good story then this book is for you. It is a wonderful piece of local history recanted through photographs and stories well worth reading.

Old Idaho Penitentiary, $21.99, Arcadia Publishing. Available at local retailers, online bookstores, or through Arcadia Publishing at www.arcadiapublishing.com or (888) 313-2665. 

Copies of this book are also available on site at the Old Idaho Penitentiary gift shop.