High temperatures in Boise had hovered around 100 degrees for ten days. On August 9 the thermometer hit 102. The cooldown to 98 degrees on August 10 was hardly noticeable, especially in the old cell blocks at the Idaho State Penitentiary on the outskirts of Boise. It could get up to 118 on the upper decks.
Cooler quarters for some of the inmates were closed that day because officials had found two escape tunnels in the “honor dormitory.” That detonated four hours of rioting. The prisoners set fires in the bakery and the social services building. Two inmates were stabbed in the melee.
After guards and Ada County deputies brought the incident under control, more complaints about conditions at the 99-year-old prison surfaced. A lack of sanitation was second only to the heat on the list of concerns for the inmates. Prisoners claimed to have found a dead rat in the dilapidated water tank on the hill above the prison, along with rat droppings. Inmates complained of filthy conditions in the kitchen and a lack of sanitation in the prison clinic.
Authorities brought in a dozen industrial fans and let inmates stay outside for a time after the riot and addressed some other prisoner complaints.
It was not the first riot at the prison, and it would not be the last. In 1952 300 prisoners rioted for five hours, setting fire to one of the dormitories. That dust-up was quelled when 100 heavily armed officers stood on the walls of the prison and fired teargas into the recreation building where inmates were gathered. Complaints about a new convict grievance committee set that disturbance off.
The last riot at the old prison was the one most remembered. It is also commonly misremembered as the reason Idaho built a new prison in the desert south of Boise. The new prison complex had been in the works for at least 13 years when the 1973 riot broke out. In fact, the riot started when an inmate who was already at the new maximum-security site was transported to the clinic at the old prison for treatment of a minor injury. When it was time to go back, inmate Larry Trujillo, 25, refused to go. Other inmates threateningly gathered around the guards attempting to move Trujillo.
While a discussion about moving the prisoner was taking place between the warden and the inmate council, fires broke out in four prison buildings. It was later learned that inmates accused guards of beating Trujillo and another inmate. That’s what sparked the riot of more than 200 prisoners.
The fires destroyed the prison chapel and the kitchen-dining hall, with heavy damage to the tailor shop, laundry, and an administrative office. The flames left their signature on the Old Idaho Penitentiary as we know it today. Just three weeks after the riot, Idaho State Historical Society Director Arthur A. Hart had the foresight to implore authorities to leave the bones of the burned-out buildings in place to preserve the history of the riot and broached the subject of maintaining the old prison as an Idaho state historical site.
Although the 1973 riot was not the impetus for constructing the new $13 million dollar prison, it did give officials a push to move inmates as quickly as possible. The new prison opened December 3, 1973. The Idaho Statesman in a caption on a photo of shiny new bars, noted that “if anyone can get out of here, he doesn’t have many options on where to hide, because the new prison is in the middle of barren sagebrush land.”
The first escape came ten days later.