While visiting family in Boise, I visited the Idaho State Penitentiary. This historic site functioned as a prison from 1872 to 1973, and it is comprised of complex of buildings surrounded by an imposing stone wall. Over 13,000 inmates lived here while the penitentiary was active. Prisoner riots in the 1970s over living conditions led to its closure and it was placed on theNational Register of Historic Places the year it closed.
I picked up a quarterly issue of Clog at the Chicago Architecture Biennial on prisons and architecture. The dozens of articles by architects, reformers and activists, and prisoners shed light on a variety of issues that relate to this type of architecture. This publication helped put into context my visit to the historic penitentiary. When prisons were first built, they were meant both to punish those deemed to be criminal and protect society from the prisoners. There was often little consideration for the physical, much less the psychological, well-being of the inhabitants of these buildings, given these goals. This explained the cramped, dreary quarters and what to me seemed like uninhabitable windowless boxes that were solitary confinement.
There was also an essay discussing the recent trend of historic prisons as horror-gazing. Historic sites face the challenge of competing with other entertainment and cultural attractions. Some make the decision to dramatise some historical aspects in order to appeal to a wider audience. Idaho State Penitentiary has capitalized on this trend, offering haunted tours and a Halloween haunted house. Sensationalizing what was indeed a place of great misfortune and unhappiness can trivialize it. It’s a fine line to walk between experimenting with the identity of a former prison and exploiting the reality that many faced while residing here.
I’m glad we visited, though the trip took a toll on us, and I left with more questions than I started with thanks to Clog.