© 2024 Boise State Public Radio
NPR in Idaho
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
A regional collaboration of public media stations that serve the Rocky Mountain States of Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

Nighttime paranormal investigations lead dozens to the Old Idaho Penitentiary

A team from Big River Paranormal loads gear into the Old Idaho Penitentiary at night.JPG
Madelyn Beck
Mountain West News Bureau
A team from Big River Paranormal loads gear into the Old Idaho Penitentiary at night on Oct. 22, 2022.

Midnight paranormal investigations aren’t for the faint of heart.

As the group stands in the dark in front of long-abandoned prison cells at the Old Idaho Penitentiary, a metal door slams as someone leaves the building.

“By the way, the door slams,” said group leader Tina Hughes as others giggled in the darkness.

It wasn’t a ghost, but was enough to make a few people jump.

Hughes is a volunteer with Big River Paranormal, which occasionally leads paranormal investigations with members of the public through the so-called “Old Pen.” Proceeds from tickets benefit the Idaho Historical Society.

There’s a good reason people suspect the location is haunted: at least 130 people died there from when the prison opened in 1872 to when it closed in 1973. Historians are still looking for evidence of more deaths.

A group investigates paranormal activity at the Old Idaho Penitentiary, led by volunteers with Big River Paranormal.JPG
Madelyn Beck
Mountain West News Bureau
A group investigates paranormal activity at the Old Idaho Penitentiary, led by volunteers with Big River Paranormal.

Hughes started volunteering for Big River Paranormal about two and half years ago, after attending one of these events herself. By day, she’s an accounting technician for the State of Idaho.

And she actually used to be afraid of the dark.

“I'm from a small town in Nevada. So we had coyotes, and I was always told ‘be careful with coyotes,’” she said.

Now, Hughes leads teams through the Old Penitentiary at night, pointing to burn marks on walls and ceilings, and trying to communicate with those who might have never left. She said nighttime is best for that.

“Things are quieter so you can hear a lot more of what's going on in the building or what's what may be going on around you. I mean, you can hear footsteps when you normally wouldn't because during the day there's a lot of people walking around,” she said.

Tina Hughes stands in front of a cell, faintly lit up by flashlights.jpg
Madelyn Beck
Mountain West News Bureau
Tina Hughes stands in front of a cell at the Old Idaho Penitentiary, faintly lit up by flashlights. She's explaining that they can ask prisoners questions, but spirits do not perform on command. "They're not monkeys, they're not clowns."

Hughes has had her own experiences there, too. She was in a building on the property where a riot had broken out in 1973, hastening the prison’s closure. While standing in a cell among the charred walls and ceiling, a man with her commented that it had gotten very warm.

“And right about that time, my butt got touched. I'm like, whoa, okay!” she said.

She said it was more validating than frightening, though: it confirmed, for her, that someone is there in the darkness.

After the event is over and she’s back at her desk, Hughes listens to hours and hours of recorded audio from the investigations, trying to make out any sounds or words that may have been too quiet or unnoticed in person.

Recorders are part of the kit each group takes, which also includes a camera and a device that measures temperature and electromagnetic fields.

Paranormal investigation gear includes cameras, audio recorders and Mel meters, which measures temperature and electromagnetic fields.JPG
Madelyn Beck
Mountain West News Bureau
Big River Paranormal's paranormal investigation kits include cameras, audio recorders and Mel meters, which measures temperature and electromagnetic fields.

I joined Hughes’s investigators for a tour in October. They started in the same building where she reports being touched. A flood light was on in the top floor, we noticed, which was strange.

That light later went out by itself. But then there was a metal gate. When we first walked in, it was closed. We opened it to walk up to the top floor and look at the burn damage and cells there. But when we came back down, that gate was closed.

“That’s crazy, oh my god,” she said.

Other kinds of reported experiences include cold spots, being touched and hearing voices when people aren’t around. Marie Johnston is the executive director of Big River Paranormal, and she’s quick to note that most spooky experiences at allegedly haunted places are non-ghost-related.

“You know, 95% of the cases that we go on actually have a logical explanation for the activity. And it’s really important for anybody investigating the paranormal to look for those logical explanations before they deem something haunted,” she said.

The burned out socket where a light bulb used to be in a cell.jpg
Madelyn Beck
Mountain West News Bureau
Hughes says this burned out socket was caused by fellow prisoners fixing a lightbulb to explode on the cell's resident who they believed was a snitch. "He wasn't in here when it blew up, but from what I've been told, that's what started the riots. But they call this the burn-out cell. There's a lot of damage that's in this cell from that." Riots in 1973 sped up the transition to move prisoners to a new facility already being built and close down the old penitentiary.

Johnston’s team also helps investigate other places, and she said they’ve handled more than 900 investigations altogether. Big River Paranormal has around 20 people volunteering in Boise, and many more in north Idaho and Portland.

But Johnston agreed with others in saying that the Old Pen is likely the most haunted place in Idaho.

“We’ve gotten a lot of activity out of here,” she said.

Just so visitors know, though: daylight won’t protect you from the paranormal.

“We're open every day for visitation, and we consistently have people who tell us that they've experienced something or had significant feelings or felt changes,” said Jacey Brain, a visitor services coordinator at the Old Penitentiary.

Brain has had his own experiences near the gallows there, including rushes of air and hearing voices when no one was around.

Looking at the history of the place, he said even a few people incarcerated there reported hauntings — though it’s hard to tell whether they were haunted by ghosts or guilt.

“People who were incarcerated reported that they were haunted by either a victim or a partner or someone who they encountered,” he said.

Brain explained that of the 130 deaths documented there so far, they include, “ten executions and then everything else, ranging from murder and suicide to disease and natural causes.”

There is a viewing room where people could watch prisoners who were being hung.jpg
Madelyn Beck
Mountain West News Bureau

Back with Hughes and her group, we heard a potential moaning sound near an area that used to be death row, where the last man was hanged in 1957.

“Was that somebody? Did anybody hear a moan?” Hughes asked.

Luckily, after we heard it a few more times, it seemed to just be the sound of traffic — much to this reporter’s relief.

Nighttime paranormal investigations at the Old Pen are on hold for the winter, because most don’t want to be out in the cold for hours on end. They typically run from March to October.

To check some of the electronic voice phenomena recorded at the Old Pen, or elsewhere, you can go here

The Old Idaho Penitentiary at night.JPG
Madelyn Beck
Mountain West News Bureau

Madelyn Beck was Boise State Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau.

You make stories like this possible.

The biggest portion of Boise State Public Radio's funding comes from readers like you who value fact-based journalism and trustworthy information.

Your donation today helps make our local reporting free for our entire community.