Historic Image Recalls Past Incident



The 1971 historic image in the Monday STATESMAN of rioting inmates at the the Idaho State Penitentiary brought back memories of fearless and foolish youth for GUARDIAN editor David R. Frazier.


I was a 25-year-old police reporter for the STATESMAN, recently back from Army service in Vietnam with more interest in getting an exclusive story than my personal safety.

When a riot broke out at the prison on Warm Springs, it was almost a social gathering of old cops, former sheriff’s deputies, and assorted law enforcement groupies. They all joined the posse along the sandstone walls of “the joint” armed with rifles, a stereotype image of the Old West (or Deep South). I stood among them, armed with a camera and note pad.

A deputy warden at the prison suggested to me, “You should go down there in the yard and talk with the inmates. Sometimes they just want to talk to a reporter.”

That sounded like an interesting proposition and sensing a “scoop,” I clambered down the ladder provided by the fire department from outside the wall. The screaming felons armed with everything from barbells and baseball bats to crudely fashioned “shanks,” kept their distance as I descended.

I approached a group of inmates and asked something brilliant like, “Who is in charge?”

Knowing I had come from the top of the wall and my coat and tie were not inmate attire, they came back with, “Not you, @#%&,” and they angrily charged me. Rather than discuss the matter or try to explain I just wanted a “scoop,” I reversed course up the ladder two rungs at a time–like a cartoon character–as the oldtime coppers raised their rifles to cover my retreat.

It was after the successful retreat that I made the picture of the rioting inmates from the top of the wall, never thinking it would end up being a historic image 42 years later.

Comments & Discussion

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  1. Nice story. I wonder if the Daily archives those with the photographers name? It would be interesting to see more of your early work.

  2. This is a wonderful story. My uncle was a parole officer out there at the time and I recall stories of the event. I even had the ‘opportunity’ to eat in the old prison cafeteria with him; my only time inside a prison. 🙂

  3. Wow! That’s an awesome cub reporter story, Dave!

    Amazingly, I, too, was close to the action, but apparently not by D.F. standards… I was an east-end kid, and as school got out we saw the smoke up Warm Springs Avenue. We bee-lined on our bicycles. Sat out on the big lawn, just southeast of the Big House, and watched the authorities at work for an hour or so.

    (Sorry I didn’t recognize you – I would’ve shouted!)

  4. This is a really fascinating picture for me. As a (relatively) young person I associate the Old Pen with the 1870s much more than 1970s. It is honestly surprising to me that there can exist photographs of the Old Pen still in use as a penitentiary and not a historical site.

    EDITOR NOTE–I took the picture. Think how old I feel!

  5. cool history, thanks for taking us back.

  6. not much has changed since then. We still have a draconian cowboy style of punishment here. Interestingly enough is that the majority of this state’s population considers themselves Christian, but hardly anyone believes in forgiveness.

  7. Nice pic Dave! I remember that riot…but did not know you were a part of the action….glad you can climb ladders fast!

  8. Cool story Dave. I was just wondering not reading the Statesman’s article yet, why was a “modern” prison not built until 1973? Thanks…

  9. L.D.: “… the majority of this state’s population considers themselves Christian, but hardly anyone believes in forgiveness.”

    L.D. – are you trying to combine “church and state”? Be careful; you’ll end up with a fat lawsuit!

    A discussion of criminal justice is straying off-topic, but if the moderator will allow, I’d like to respond.

    I consider myself a Christian, L.D., but that “turning the other cheek” thing only goes so far. If you read the story about the long-held Idaho prisoner… he’s been paroled on numerous occasions, and keeps ending up back in da joint because he’s a habitual violator.

    You may have a point about first-time offenders. Maybe their punishments are too harsh in some cases. (If it were up to me, I’d free all the reefer-smokers. That seems like a rather benign and victimless violation.) But society has to dispense both mercy AND justice, and frankly, there are some folks who just won’t play nice in society. It’s hard to feel too much pity for habitual violators.

  10. B.B
    Your right, there should be no pity for habitual offenders. That said, there should also be justice, (which in the true root sense of the word does not exist in Idaho). There are so many cases here in Idaho of our corrupted criminal justice system, and not all surround you reefer smokers. Stuff like the Senator who decided to go one a drunken grand theft auto rampage, and the prosecuting attorney who stole 300,000. Both of which got the proverbial slap on the wrist, while a homeless man walked into a gas station, took two beers and got felony robbery. Also the entire CCA which is nothing short of a debacle, (which contributed to Gov. Otter’s campaign).
    Someone like the Editor of the Boise Guardian, Who has been documenting this system for as long as they have, most certainly must see it. I for one was not even alive when this picture was take, although I can see the similarities between the “Hang ’em high” attitude of then, to the “let ’em rot” attitude of today. This is a topic of discussion as it has everything to do with the story, if we do not learn from the past then we repeat it, (or are stuck in a perpetual form of it).
    Our system in Idaho has put away more people per capita then any other state in the north west, (, and we account for the least amount of violent crime. Our outlook as a society holds standards on pot smoking, consensual sex, public intoxication, and traffic laws that are more in line with the puritans of the 1600’s than that of a 21st century America.

  11. Cool picture… I think violent crime was statistically worse back then? But TV is much better at showing us all the bad stuff going on now. Smaller crimes/convictions are up however… I’ll explain: LD, BB, Whomever cares to read it:

    I think many people are born anti-social (criminal) and it is almost inevitable they will be taken into the system (yes, genetic). However, the modern justice system is a for-profit organized-crime division of an increasingly untrustworthy and paranoid government. Yes, it is true… the NSA really is spying on you… and you… and you too. Due to the justice system’s advancing development, it has a very large appetite. Thus it is starting to suck people into the vortex that would probably have a productive future but for one minor event. The disenfranchisement which occurs from a young person’s major exposure to our corrupt system as a result of minor event/crime is pushing many many “off” buttons forever. In this way the beast spreads its seed for future meals.

    The police are the largest street gang in America. SWAT raids on homes are up 3000% in the past ten years. Many a cop has been caught on tape committing criminal thuggery to their victims. SWAT has been used on old women whose houses smell like cleaning chemicals and other lame excuses to violate rights, destroy property, and, too often, kill people. Military attitudes, personnel, training, weapons, vehicles, and aircraft. (Have you already forgotten the two little asian women shot to bits in LA last year… they were delivering newspapers… cops said they looked like a big black guy.) Prosecutors aim for a conviction any way they can. Honesty is not important. A cop can and will lie to you. Ignoring and suppressing evidence of innocence is common. The overall system is not about punishment/rehabilitation as much as it about squeezing every penny in can from its prey… it is hungry. Those caught up in the system tend to be mentally ill and/or low IQ. They generally don’t target those innocents who will get a good lawyer and drag it out into the daylight… not yet anyway. The result is we have the modern day version of debtor’s prison. Sad that some think it is an improvement. Nicer building, you bet, same Dirty Harry system however.

    46% of the budget in Ada goes to public safety, 16% to courts… and they are lesser equipped than many. Sorry, but I felt safer in 1971.

  12. What a great memory that is….
    after you make your escape, that is.
    Are you keeping your scrapbook? This pic qualifies for fame..

  13. Great story, Dave.
    I go up there every few years and do a walkaround. Always blows my mind that place was still in operation when I was 8 years old.
    It would be nice if you could share other 1970’s and earlier pictures of Boise that you took.
    Boise was a dramatically different place then and a lot of folks are completely unaware of that.

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