The Idaho State Historical Society (ISHS) receives state funding to run a number of historic sites and museums around the state. One of the most popular is the Old Idaho Penitentiary. Originally the Idaho Territorial Prison, then the Idaho State Penitentiary, the prison operated from 1872 to 1973. In 1974, the ISHS acquired the penitentiary and placed it on the National Register of Historic Places. The ISHS is a state agency, and it therefore receives funding from taxpayers as well as visitor admission. As such, the institution is beholden to the governor, legislators, and Idaho taxpayers for its continued existence. That brings with it a certain responsibility for employees to not “rock the boat.”
A historic prison inherently comes with “difficult history” that we must interpret, while being mindful of the social climate and political leanings of the surrounding community as well as the state government. Although Boise (where the prison is located) tends to be slightly more liberal, the rest of Idaho and the state government are staunchly conservative.
Idaho and White Supremacy
The complicated political and social climate in which the historic prison exists cannot be ignored when you consider Idaho’s reputation in the 1980s and 1990s as being a “white supremacist” haven. “White flight” began long before Richard Butler founded the neo-Nazi organization, the Aryan Nations, in 1977. During the Civil War, Confederates trekked to Idaho to avoid changing politics in the South. Idaho’s reputation as a “white state” persisted as the state attempted to shake that image and “Hate State” nickname. Individuals like Bill Wassmuth, a North Idaho preacher, and civil rights activist, Idaho Purce, fought hard to dismantle Idaho’s racist ideology and reputation. Even after his home was bombed by the Aryan Nations 1986, Wassmuth founded the Northwest Coalition for Human Dignity, which fought against the Aryan Nations and other hate groups. He succeeded when a lawsuit bankrupted Butler and the Aryan Nations were forced to sell their North Idaho compound in 2001. Since then, the Aryan Nations organization is considered officially disbanded, but that does not mean that white supremacy went away. Ideological remnants persist, with small organizations (American Redoubt Movement, the Road to Power, and the Northwest Front) holding out and carrying on the white nationalist message. White supremacy aside, Idaho’s politics as a largely libertarian state foster a very “hands-off” government approach. This makes Idaho an ideal location for separatist ideas that cater to survivalist mindsets, the American militia movement, and a growing Greater Idaho movement, that favors “rural values.” These issues have been at the forefront of news media, most recently as citizen-militias caused tensions to rise about election fraud and patriotic education. The people holding these ideologies remain a small part of the state, but their presence is felt in a big way, especially in North Idaho.
As the United States grapples with police brutality and “Black Lives Matter” debates, our hands remain tied as a state funded institution, especially given our roles as both educators and representatives of a conservative government. Our mission of education for the public leads us to explore contentious issues that link the past with the present in corrections, such as social justice, mass incarceration, and systems of oppression. Yet even the mere mention of social justice elicits heated responses from the general public, especially online. We have regularly received comments that historians should stick to the past, that prisoners got what they deserved, and that we should stay out of politics.
What the public does not realize is that history is inherently political. And it is constantly politicized to fit a certain narrative. This is best illustrated with what we saw in September during the White House Conference on American History, where President Trump decried liberals for tearing down monuments, insulting the Founding Fathers, and indoctrinating children to be ashamed of their own history. This conference focused entirely on the “falsehoods” that “the Left” perpetuates. It addressed nothing about the nuanced perspectives and different practices of history. The very job of historians is to interpret all parts of the past! The president nevertheless accused historians of ignoring the “great” parts of America’s history and focusing too much on eras and topics that challenge the idea of American exceptionalism. By proclaiming that schools need to teach “patriotic education,” the president completely negated the interesting work of historians whose job it is to bring to light stories that otherwise would not get told. Of course, now more than ever, we mustn’t turn a blind eye to the messy parts of history.
Faces of the Idaho State Penitentiary
The political pressure that historians face was evident in our latest exhibits: Faces of the Idaho State Penitentiary and Disturbing Justice. Historical sites that operate on state funds must be careful not to take too much of a stance on any pertinent matter, but instead must act as a forum, providing as much balanced and unbiased information as possible – a definite challenge. As a staff member, it can be frustrating that we cannot be as outspoken on certain current affairs as we would like, due to the conservative nature of the government and constituency. Almost two years ago the site installed an exhibit, Faces of the Idaho State Penitentiary, which highlighted some of the prison’s minority populations, adulterers, bootleggers, abortionists, men guilty of infamous crimes against nature (homosexual relations), and other “difficult offenders.” One aspect of the exhibit is an explanation of a bertillon chart (used to note any distinguishing marks on the body, such as scars and tattoos, plus skin color, height, eye color, etc.); examples are shown, and a handout is provided for the public to complete their own chart and display it. (This is no longer available due to COVID-19 restrictions.) At the end of the day, staff had to remove the inappropriate responses. One card read, “It’s okay to be white,” and nothing else. Unfortunately, the visitor completely missed the point of the exhibit, and this example displays some of the hurdles that public historians deal with on a daily basis concerning visitor apathy and echoes of Idaho’s white supremacist history.
Our newest exhibit, Disturbing Justice, uses art and history to detail the prison’s seven riots and disturbances. With the national discussion on protests and racism, the exhibit is inadvertently timely. Visitors are tasked with deciding if those involved in these conflicts were disturbing justice or if the justice itself was disturbing. The opening panel further explains that these events are very complicated, and that we have attempted to tell both sides of the story, from the perspective of those incarcerated to those in charge of prisons. The format of the exhibit uses comic book style illustrations to depict the different riots. It is accompanied by photos, interpretations, and a timeline. Once the exhibit has been viewed, we ask visitors to answer a prompt, writing chalk responses next to the exhibit building. The first prompt has visitors describe in three words or a picture what justice means to them. There have been some thoughtful and some inappropriate responses, as can be expected.
Within this political climate, and among police brutality and protests, some conservative Idahoans have pushed back against the Disturbing Justice exhibit, using terms like “social justice” to criticize it. Treading around “difficult history” – like discrimination, mass incarceration, moral crimes, sex crimes, and social justice – within the confines of a government institution can therefore be tricky. It can attract opposition from those who do not want their tax dollars to fund historical entities that they feel promote “liberal agendas,” and they reiterate the argument that historians need to “stick to the past.” But as a historic site, we want to discuss those issues and connect the protests happening today to their past. Things like mass incarceration did not just happen overnight, especially in a state that ranks number one in prison populations compared to other northwest states, despite having one of the lowest population bases. Idaho relies on private prisons and county jails to combat overcrowding, even sending men to private prisons in Texas and Colorado. One would think that examining and dismantling this system would be beneficial to the state. But prisons are profitable, and some people would rather continue to ignore the problem than face the possibility that mass incarceration does not assuage crime. So we at the Old Idaho Penitentiary cannot always pursue the programming we want due to touchy topics and expected negative public and policy-maker reactions.
These are just a few examples of the difficulties of working for a state agency, especially concerning a “hot topic” site, like a historic prison. In the past few years at the Old Idaho Penitentiary, we have tried to introduce more exhibits that relate to contemporary issues, like racism within the mass incarceration system and the causes and reactions to riots, especially with Faces of the Old Idaho Penitentiary and Disturbing Justice. Our hope is that we can continue to push the envelope with thought-provoking programs targeted at examining the roots of our current prison problems. I would love to explore more controversial subjects – such as the death penalty – to spur discussions on important issues and to provide the public with context and a safe space to engage in debates. But, as always, we must be mindful of the state government’s stance and reaction to such ideas when planning for future exhibits. This tension is an important challenge for me and other public historians who work with the public and act as government representatives.
Featured Photo: The Idaho State Penitentiary incarcerated 216 women from 1887-1968. After 1920 they were confined to the Women’s Ward, shown above.