The Old Idaho State Penitentiary offers students the chance to further their knowledge of Boise’s main historical sites

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Going to college at Boise State University, students are surrounded by history on and off campus. Although not every student will find themselves to be a history major, the sites Boise has to offer throughout the community have the potential to draw them in, regardless of interest area.

The Old Idaho State Penitentiary, just three miles from campus, is one major historical site that students have the opportunity to visit, and the site has been around for more than 147 years.

Once at the penitentiary, there are many original buildings and cell blocks available for tours and exploration, including the administration building that invites visitors onto the site. The location itself dates back to the year 1870, when the oldest building was completed. Inmates didn’t arrive until 1872, and the prison itself was closed in 1973.

“(The penitentiary) really typifies social justice in the West and social justice in Idaho,” said Amber Beierle, Boise State graduate and historic sites administrator for the penitentiary. “So, getting a better understanding of what laws were, why people were incarcerated. Are they similar? Are they different today? We always should look to the past for that essential knowledge.”

This knowledge Beierle talks about is helpful to many from diverse areas of expertise and, although found in many books, being able to go to the site is an even more immersive experience.

“If we go to the past, we go to the place where it actually happened,” Beierle said. “There, that experience will just help drive knowledge into the future. Everyone from a criminal justice major, to a history major, to sociology, psychology, all those things. This place can inform all of those majors.”

While the focus of the Old Idaho State Penitentiary is to offer up of historical information to the community, the site also holds events that promote learning and, possibly, even a paranormal occurrence. For those students who are less interested in history, the penitentiary is notorious as one of the most haunted sites in Boise.  

“We really embrace the possibility, because there’s people that come here and don’t experience anything, and sometimes they’re disappointed,” Beierle said. “And (for) others, it seems very real and very tangible to them. We just want people to come and experience it for themselves.”

Although many happenings around the site can be debunked, not everything is able to be explained away. Paranormal activity may be interesting to some, but the rumors about the Old Idaho State Penitentiary go beyond the haunting, and into the interest of historical minds community-wide.

“I’ve met a lot of people who have had pretty intense experiences out here. I’m always willing to collect those stories that people have,” said interpretive specialist Anthony Perry.

Whether students are looking for historical facts, are curious about what knowledge they can gain from the past, or are even looking to have a paranormal experience, the Old Idaho State Penitentiary is full of whatever one is looking to discover.

“My favorite part is finding new ways in which the guests can relate to the penitentiary, through stories and connections that we can find on a visitation level,” said Jacey Brain, interpretive specialist for the site. “My favorite part is seeing the different ways that people will connect and relate to the site and seeing what they choose to take home with them.”


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