Over 13,000 Prisoners Passed Through Old Idaho State Penitentiary, and Some Say Not All of Them Left
While haunted prisons can apparently be found in numerous places in the United States, a haunted prison that’s also a designated historic landmark and a very important part of American history is, to say the least, slightly rarer. However, Idaho’s Old Idaho State Penitentiary complex fits the bill and them some.
The complex was first constructed in 1870, a full 20 years before Idaho became a state. The Territorial Prison, as it was then known, was first built as a single cell house near the city of Boise. Over the next 100 years, the prison grew into a large sprawling complex made up of five cell blocks and various other administrative and facility-related buildings. The whole complex was surrounded by a 17-foot-high wall, which was built from local sandstone that was quarried by prisoner labor.
The prison was open for just over 100 years, and during that period over 13,000 prisoners were cycled through the facility. Old Idaho State Penitentiary became notorious for the terrible conditions in its cell blocks, which eventually culminated in two prisoner riots in the early 1970s. The Travel Channel described these conditions as:
The sandstone that formed its walls was a plentiful and inexpensive building material, but it also intensified the temperatures inside the cells. In the hot Boise summers, the sandstone retained the heat, creating a stifling oven effect; in winter, the walls held the bitter cold, chilling the prisoners for months.
Proper plumbing didn’t reach the prison until the 1920s, an unpleasant condition that also spread disease. This was complicated by the prison’s ill-working ventilation system. Conditions like these pushed inmates to the edge and guards answered violence with more violence until 1971, when prisoners reached their breaking point.
The prison was closed for good in 1973, and was designated a national historic site for its significance as a territorial prison that same year. Stewardship of the site was taken up by the Idaho State Historical Society, which operates a museum and tours on the property.
In the 40-plus years since the prison closed, there have been numerous reports of paranormal activity at the complex. Specifically, most reports center around one of Old Idaho State Penitentiary’s most famous inmates, Ray Snowden. Sometimes referred to as “Idaho’s Jack the Ripper,” Snowden was sentenced to death for the brutal murder of a woman named Cora Dean. Prior to his 1957 execution by hanging, Snowden admitted to the murders of two other women.
In the years since the prison closed, visitors and museum workers alike have claimed that his spirit still haunts the grounds. Many of these claims center around the building known as 5 House, where Snowden was hung. Many claim that Snowden’s final agonized attempts to breathe — according to records, it took over 15 minutes for him to suffocate to death — can be heard throughout the building, particularly at the former location of the gallows.
In addition to Snowden, many guests and tour guides claim that “sinister feelings, strange sounds, voices” and “dark entities” still lurk in the cellblocks of Old Idaho State Penitentiary, particularly near the former solitary confinement cells.
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