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From Boise

Lessons from a life sentence at the Old Idaho Pen

published12 months ago
7 min read

For more than 100 years, the Old Idaho Penitentiary housed some of the most dangerous criminals in the West: murderers, bank robbers, troubled souls running from one crime to the next. There were also a handful of inmates who weren't criminals at all, but rather had found themselves on the wrong side of the law at the time. The Old Pen existed before Idaho was an official state and over its 101 years in operation, more than 13,000 inmates lived at the site – men, women, and even children.

The Old Pen was also home to a dozen or so residents who were not convicts nor staff. In fact, they weren’t even human. And no, they weren’t ghosts either, though plenty of spirits are said to live there these days.

A dozen or so animals also lived at the Old Idaho Pen. Most were working or played some sort of role keeping order within the prison.

There was a cat named Zipper, who is said to have led a team of mousers, or cats in charge of keeping the mouse population in check. Zipper was once called "the toughest cat in Idaho" by the Idaho Statesman.

There were a few bloodhounds whose jobs were to find escaped prisoners on the run. One hound named Wrinkles found a bit of fame for being especially bad at his job. There was a full-fledged turkey farm on the grounds at one point. And there was also a bullfrog named Champ, who mostly provided entertainment. Prisoners swear they once saw Champ eat a full-grown sparrow.

And then there was Dennis.

Dennis was a black and white cat and the unofficial ruler of the Old Pen for 16 years. More importantly, Dennis was a friend to all and an unwavering companion to those who needed him the most.

“The most interesting thing about Dennis is that he was just somehow really special,” said Jacey Brian, the Visitor Services Coordinator at the Old Pen. “They wouldn’t have called him a therapy cat – but that was more of what his role was here.”

The story of Dennis begins in the early summer of 1952 in 2 Yard where inmates would go to exercise and also where the prison baseball team, The Outlaws, played. Today, that area is part of the Idaho Botanical Gardens and is where the aptly named Outlaw Field concert series happens.

Anyway, back in the early summer of 1952, a group of prisoners were out in 2 Yard and happened upon a little black and white kitten. Some say he was found while others say he was smuggled in by a runner. But regardless, a young man who had just begun a life sentence for robbery scooped up the tiny tuxedo cat, smuggled it through the yard, and brought it back to his cell house.

Once in the safety of his cell, the kitten smuggler named the little cat Dennis and enlisted the help of his bunkmates to take turns caring for him. They kept him in secret, bringing him milk and food scraps whenever they could.

Of course, it wasn’t long before the administration found out about Dennis. But instead of taking him away, they used him as a bribe.

“The administration was basically like, well, this doesn't need to become a thing. We're not just going to let people have pets in here. But he can stay as long as everyone's on their best behavior and if there are any issues, then he's out,” said Jacey. “But that whole ‘one false move and he’s outta here’ thing didn’t last very long.”

Dennis quickly came to be loved by all the guards, staff, and other prisoners. He was let in and out of cell houses whenever he wanted. Guards would open gates for him to pass through as he pleased – perhaps with a tiny “thank you” leg rub on his way through. Chess games would pause when Dennis jumped up and planted his large paws smack dab in the middle of the board. Wherever Dennis wanted to go, he would go.

At one point, Dennis’ caretaker was transferred and no one thought to bring him food. His fur grew matted and his figure thinned. Luckily another prisoner who was serving a life term and working in the barber shop noticed him and took over Dennis duty. Even though Dennis had free range of the prison grounds, from that point on, the barber shop was his home. He is said to have slept in a box on the counter, allowing his silky fur to be stroked while he snoozed through conversations.

The barber shop is also where Dennis died. He passed in his sleep, curled up in his cozy box, on May 30, 1968.

The Barber Shop where Dennis lived and died. The hospital used to stand where the empty lot to the right is, but it burned down in the 1970 riots.

Dennis spent all of his 16 years within the stone walls of the Old Pen, with more loving friends and family than most cats probably encounter or even accept. He was loved, or at least respected, by all. And he loved in return, too.

"His life resembled that of a thousand other cats in a thousand other prisons, with this expectation: no cat in penal history ever claimed ownership of a prison more completely. The joint was his, and no one ever thought differently. Croquet games paused when he crossed the lawn. Even the guards opened doors for him to when he signaled his intention to leave – or enter – a building. His rations were part of the mainline orders, without fail. He lived the good life. He died peacefully."
-Ed Eline, a former inmate at the Old Pen

When someone died at the Old Pen, there was one of two things that would happen. The next of kin or another living family member would be contacted to claim the body. Usually, the family would have the body buried in a family plot or cemetery close to home. If no one claimed the body or couldn’t afford a funeral, they would be buried in the prison cemetery.

It was different when Dennis died. After all, Dennis died at his home and was surrounded by his family. It didn’t make sense for him to go to the prison cemetery, nor did it make sense to send his body elsewhere. Realizing this truth, the prison administration allowed Dennis to be buried on the prison grounds. To this day, Dennis is the only known burial within the prison walls.

A small section of land behind the hobby shop was chosen as Dennis’ final resting place. A small headstone was made and etched with a cross and a small steel plaque that reads:

DENNIS THE CAT
Served 16 years I.S.P.
Born: Memorial Day 1952
Died: Memorial Day 1968

It’s nicer and more durable than any of the headstones you will see over in the prison cemetery.

A funeral was held as Dennis the cat was laid to rest. As the story goes, all of the staff, guards, and prisoners gathered in the small grass patch and paid their respects. For several days, a procession of inmates went behind the building to see his grave.

When I visited Dennis’ grave with Jacey, it was gleaming in the late summer sun, covered almost entirely with shining coins.

“Some of the lore surrounding Dennis is that he especially loved the guys who were here for life sentences, the long-termers. He really latched onto them and seemed to know which guys really needed that comfort the most,” Jacey tells me as we knelt to collect the coins.

We picked up two handfuls worth, which will go toward the prison cemetery headstone fund, he told me. I realized it’s been 53 years since Dennis died. And still, after all this time, people are paying tribute to the old prison cat.

As Jacey and I walked through the quiet grounds, he pointed out places from Dennis’ life. The license plate factory where he grew from kitten to cat. The barber shop where he lived and eventually died. The green grassy patch where his family and friends stood to mourn his departure.

Jacey and I parted ways and I took one last lap through the Old Pen.

It’s so beautiful and calm in there; the kind of calm that makes you talk quietly without realizing. I walked slowly, noticing how the sun flooded roofless stone buildings. Rose bushes have grown tall enough to peek through gated windows, almost as if they needed all these years to grow the courage to look over the stone wall and into the abandon space that was once a cell house.

I walked over to Dennis one last time and looked out over the grounds from his grave. A huge patch of yellow rabbitbrush has grown nearby and a modern fence has been installed just a few feet from his headstone.

I thought about Dennis and the life he lived here at the Old Pen. I pictured him approaching guards at entryways, his very presence demanding they allow him to pass through. I wonder if he could have fit through the bars but made the guards open them for him anyway. Typical cat behavior.

I imagined Dennis darting out into the grass to halt a game of croquet, chasing after the ball or maybe just because he knew they would stop playing to let him go by.

I walked into the old barber shop, which is now an empty room with informational posters covering the walls, and imagined Dennis curled up in his little box on the counter. How much company he must have brought the men who cared for him and all those who he encountered.

I thought of his last caretaker’s sadness when he came into the barber shop on May 30, 1968, perhaps ready to celebrate Dennis’ 17th birthday, only to find that his old friend had passed on peacefully.

I envisioned the path the prisoners would have taken to pay their respects to Dennis after he died and was buried, a group of mourning men and women standing on the grassy patch, saying goodbye to their shared companion who had lived a life of love in a place where you’d least expect it.

I realized that what made Dennis so special was not only who he loved, but how he loved. A steady, unwavering friendship that doesn’t dwell on the past nor depend on the future. Dennis is said to have taken especially to lifers, the inmates who had really messed up and were set to live the rest of their lives behind bars and stone walls. Arguably, those were the people who least deserved unconditional love. Or maybe, those were the people who needed it the most.

May we all live life a little more like Dennis. Doing what you want. Being open to going where life takes you and who you meet along the way. May you take the time to find the perfect place to settle, landing in a place that brings you happiness, peace, and good company.

Above all, may you remember to give a little extra love and grace to those who may not seem deserving. They just might need it the most.

Thanks for reading!

With love from Boise,

Marissa

You can find a link to this story here. Thanks for sharing!

You can read more about Dennis' life here.

PS - the Old Pen has some really awesome events happening this month. Check it out!