Top 50 Stories — 1971, 1973 — Riots at Old Pen

awebb@idahostatesman.comJune 7, 2014 

  • ABOUT THIS SERIES

    To celebrate 150 years of producing this newspaper, we are reprinting one of our Top 50 stories each day through July 6. Then you can vote for your Top 10 stories, which will appear in our commemorative special section on July 26. Read more at Idaho Statesman.com/150years.

When the Idaho Territorial prison's first 11 inmates arrived in Boise in 1872, the warden put them to work cutting stone to build more prison buildings.

That early austerity might have set the tone for what life would be like for prisoners even 100 years later. By then, the prison had grown from a single cellblock to a complex of multiple buildings surrounded by a 17-foot stone wall.

A pair of riots, both in the early 1970s, protested living conditions and prisoner treatment. The riots hastened the 1973 move of more than 400 prisoners out of the century-old sandstone fortress into the then-new penitentiary south of Boise.

Prisoners rioted in the summer of 1971 against crowding, temperatures in cells - scorching or freezing, depending on the season - dead rats in the water system, and inadequate visiting hours. Inmates' grievances included the closure of an honor dorm after guards discovered partially dug escape tunnels beneath it.

Three prisoners suffered stab wounds in the melee; one died. His body was discovered rolled up in a gym mat. Rioters also burned two buildings inside the prison. The Statesman's headlines were straightforward during that August week in the midst of a heat wave: "Fires, Stabbings Hit Idaho Prison."

Prisoners rioted again in the spring of 1973. Two inmates who had been charged with stabbing a fellow inmate claimed guards beat them. Prisoners rallied around the two and set fires.

A Statesman story after the disturbance noted that the property damage from the 1973 riot reached $100,000 - four times that of the 1971 riot.

Losses included the dining hall and the prison's oldest building, the 1872 territorial cellblock, converted to a chapel in the 1930s. The roofless shell still stands.

The riots of the 1970s were the most famous and most tumultuous in the Old Pen's history. But they were not the sole conflicts. In 1935, prisoners started overturning tables in the dining hall. Guards subdued them with "knockout gas." A 1952 riot broke out after guards placed a prisoner in solitary confinement - aka Siberia.

In keeping with the civil rights era, 300 convicts staged a nonviolent "sit-in" in 1966. They were protesting the closure of the commissary after guards discovered counterfeit commissary coins.

Today, the Idaho State Historical Society operates the Old Idaho Penitentiary as a museum and historic site. Stories of the riots and visitors' incredulity that inmates lived in the undeniably primitive cells until 1973 seem to add to the place's mystique.

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