Old Idaho Penitentiary art show highlights uplifting stories from the prison’s history

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For the 32 Cells Art Show, local artists visually brought to life the site’s history and the stories of people who were incarcerated or worked at the Old Pen.

BOISE, Idaho — The cold cells of the Old Idaho Penitentiary were warmed up with art highlighting history and stories of the former territorial prison on Saturday. 

For the annual 32 Cells Art Show, local artists were given stories about people who were incarcerated or worked at the Old Pen, or stories about the history of the site throughout it’s 101 years of operation. 

The stories were brought to life through visual art that decorated the bars of cells in the 4 house and maximum security buildings. 

“Mostly it’s about the opportunity, giving local artists the opportunity to create pieces based on stories of our shared cultural heritage, and make them their own,” Old Idaho Penitentiary Visitor Services Coordinator, Jacey Brain said. “They interpret them based on their vision, and we pair them up with these slices of history, and visitors are able to see these stories in new ways that they might not have looked at them before.”

Saturday was the 32 Cells Art Show’s eight year. This year’s theme was ‘Uplift’ and promoted stories of hope and humanity.

“We’re looking at stories of redemption, stories of positive outcomes and positive impacts the incarcerated should experience – so kind of the silver linings of some of these stories,” Brain said.

Stories including an inmate’s love of piano, ‘mouser’ cats that kept mice out of the dining room and blood drives held at the Old Pen during the world wars.

“They utilized the manpower here on site in order to benefit whatever causes they could, and usually the men who were incarcerated here rallied around those causes,” Brain said. “So, not only did they hold blood drives here at the site, we still do that today.”

The Idaho State Historical Society’s mission with the Old Pen’s education programs is to show the humanity behind people who were incarcerated in the cells that house the 101 years of history of the prison.

“Humanity is not all one-sided, right? Humanity has two sides, and even the story of incarceration and the story of prison, there were positive outcomes in addition to the hardships that people endured,” Brain said. “So, a lot of folks will automatically connect the site to negative experience and to parts of society that we don’t always want to face, but there were positive sides to some people’s experiences here. Some people made it out and did amazing things with their lives, and so we’re telling those stories this year.”

All proceeds of the 32 Cells Art Show benefited Idaho State Historical Society education programs.

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