Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park provides a look back in history at prison life in the late 1800s
On July 1, 1876, the first seven inmates entered the Territorial Prison at Yuma, Arizona and were locked into cells they had built themselves. Thus began the legend of the Yuma Territorial Prison. By 1907, the prison was severely overcrowded and there was no room left for expansion on Prison Hill. The prison closed in 1909. Inmates were moved to the prison at Florence, Arizona. Today the site is a museum and a state park. Visitors to Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park can view the remains of cell blocks, learn about the prison’s history and and catch an eerie glimpse into life at the prison.
The museum building was built in 1940 with New Deal funds on the grounds of what once was the kitchen and dining hall. The City of Yuma operated the museum until 1960, when Yuma Territorial Prison became Arizona’s third state park.
Convicts referred to the prison as “hell hole”, probably because of the dark cell. Yet, other accounts list the prison as humanely administered and a model institution for its time. An 1890 newspaper account said, “cells are kept scrupulously clean . . . prison delightfully located on a hill overlooking the town and answering every need.” The prison had more modern amenities than many Yuma homes and Yuma residents resented that. Electricity, ventilation, sanitation facilities, a library and prison band caused some to consider the place a “country club”.
Prisoners worked 48 hours a week in the fields, quarry, adobe yard, or assorted shops. In their off-hours, they were allowed to produce crafts. Crafts were sold at once-a-month craft fairs, open to the public. Profits were shared between the prison and the inmates.
Water came directly from the river. In 1871 the water reservoir was built. Inmates dug tunnels at the base of the hill. The tunnels filled with water. From there the water was pumped into a holding tank, also constructed by the inmates. A platform was built on top of the tank to reduce evaporation. In 1882 a guard tower was built on that platform. The guard tower became a civil defense lookout during World War II.
Teens may sometimes refer to their schools as a prison. Those who attended Yuma High School from 1914 to 1918 could make that statement literally. The High School burned in 1914. Classes were held at the prison site until the new school was built in 1918. That was just one of the uses of the site from the time the prison closed until the museum opened. A county hospital was once housed in the Superintendent’s building. The site was used to help rebuild Yuma after the 1916 flood. Veterans of Foreign Wars used guard headquarters for years. Hobos found free lodging during Depression years. Townspeople used the complex as a free source of construction materials.
Today’s museum exhibits provide a glimpse into prison life at the time the prison was operating. The information on the prisoners and their keepers offers a broader look at the history of the time period.
I found the site to be both thought-provoking and uncannily unsettling. I found myself wondering about what is and isn’t humane treatment of prisoners. The museum includes information about some of the darker sides of the prison, but the overall image presented is one of enlightened treatment. True or selective memory?
Part way down the prison hill is a prison cemetery, where 104 of the 111 inmates who died at the prison are buried. (Families claimed the bodies of the other 7.) Some died violently or in escape attempts or workplace accidents, but the majority died of illness. Tuberculosis was a common culprit.
Because of these deaths, some say the prison is haunted. I don’t know if I sensed something of those spirits or just felt the conditions of the past closing in on me. While one part of me wanted to spend time learning the history and getting a sense of the place, another part just wanted to escape. (Of the many prisoners who attempted escape, twenty-six were successful, but only two were from within the prison confines.)
Have you visited Yuma Territorial Prison or another old prison? What did you think? How did you feel?