A new collection of vintage photographs is highlighting Idaho's historic old penitentiary which was home to bank robbers, assassins, horse thieves and moonshiners for more than 100 years. The fortress-like Old Pen has long been a staple in east Boise, and it's now a place for tourists instead of criminals.
“This is a society within society,” says co-author Amber Beierle. “You see really amazing guards that make connections with inmates. You see guards that maybe weren’t the nicest in the world. You see inmates who are repeat offenders and you also see individuals who committed a crime and really bettered themselves afterward. It goes back to our story as Idaho and as Idahoans.”
“Old Idaho Penitentiary” was co-written by Amber Beierle, Ashley Phillips, and Hanako Wakatsuki who have all worked at the jail, doing everything from research, to interpretative tours for visitors. Beierle is the education specialist at the site in east Boise where several of the pen’s old buildings still stand.
She says there are more than 200 pictures in the book, along with 100 stories and biographies. It covers everything from how the prison was built, to executions and riots.
“The thing that I want people to take away is interesting stories, wonderful rich photographs,” says Beierle, “but I think this should be the start of someone’s research, whether it’s their family or whether it’s just wanting to understand Idaho history better. I really go back to understanding social justice in Idaho.”
The penitentiary housed more than 13,000 inmates, both men and women, from 1872 to 1973. The book illustrates stories of the inmates, guards, and wardens who spent time at the Old Pen.
“More than anything, what I want for this book,” says Beierle, “is not for a bunch of factoids and cool photos that you just sort of discard, but it’s this idea of highlighting social justice through Idaho. And how those ideas change. It can help us understand the past but it really can help us develop policy and an understanding of where we are in the present and where we want to be in the future.”
The authors say the “Old Idaho Penitentiary” is a jumping off point for people to learn more about Idaho’s history. The ruins of the Old Pen still stand, one of only four territorial prisons in the U.S. still open to the public.
“I think it’s a nice history,” says co-author Ashley Phillips. “I hope people can read it and have a less stigmatized view of the prison system and inmate and wardens. It wasn’t all executions, these weren’t all horrible people, a lot of these men and women where people who made some bad choices or fell on hard times. It runs the gamut. We’re all Idahoans; even people who are incarcerated have a story to tell.”
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