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New book features profiles of women inmates at the Old Idaho Penitentiary

historic photo of Ida Laherty
Ida Laherty, teenaged horse thief, one of the women profiled in “Numbered.” Photo provided by the Idaho State Historical Society.

The state’s celebration of women’s suffrage at its 100-year mark has inspired research into the lives of Idaho women beyond the ballot box.

This includes a  frequently overlooked segment of the population – women in prison.

“Numbered,” a new book from the Idaho State Historical Society, tells the stories of the 216 women who spent time behind bars at the Old Idaho Penitentiary between 1887 and 1968.

The book has many ties to Boise State. Alumna Amber Beierle, historic sites administrator for the Idaho State Historical Society, was a writer and editor for the project, as was Todd Shallat, a Boise State Professor Emeritus of history and urban studies.

Carissa Wolf, a lecturer in the Department of Sociology, penned Hard Times, Small Crimes, a chapter on crimes of “need and want” – or crimes women committed out of poverty and desperation. Wolf said she approached the project both as a sociologist and a journalist.

“I wanted to show that these women were more than numbers but that they all had a story – one that intimately connected them to the social forces that surrounded them. These women were shaped by history, their time and place within it,” said Wolf.

With few exceptions, she added, her subjects were women without means.

“It struck me how many of these women were on their own and often with children during times that a woman’s financial stability was largely dependent upon her attachment to a man,” said Wolf.

She found that some women committed their crimes to escape an abusive partner. Others were financially ruined by illness.

“During my research, I became particularly fond of one inmate who did additional time at the state hospital after prison officials became alarmed by what they called a preference for ‘manly’ activities and for other women,” said Wolf. “Another inmate thirsted for freedom and travel. Cashing bad checks gave her that freedom. For a while, I kept wondering what her life might have looked like if she were born in a different year under different circumstances.”

Inmate photo
The woman with “orange eyes”: Helen Hall was notable for the description of her unusually colored eyes. For prosecutors in Lemhi County, where Hal was accused of running a “house of ill fame,” orange eyes hinted at debauchery. Original mugshot from the Idaho State Historical Society.

Wolf said she appreciated the collaborative nature of the project, in which different writers took on chapters on morality crimes, property crimes, murder and more.

“When we all sat down at the table to talk about how we would approach this treasure trove of history that had been hanging out in the Old Penitentiary’s vertical files, I was struck by how many faces were from Boise State University,” said Wolf. “We came from different departments, but were all there – faculty, staff, alumni. It illustrated what I love about Boise State. We seem to find each other and cross disciplines to create amazing things.”

Other writers from Boise State include alumnus Jacey Brain, a visitor services coordinator and interpretive specialist for the Idaho State Historical Society, and Anna Webb, a communications specialist in the Office of Communications and Marketing.

“Numbered” is available at Rediscovered Books and the Old Idaho Penitentiary gift shop. Proceeds will benefit programs at the Old Idaho Penitentiary and the Idaho State Historical Society.