Yuma Territorial Prison: A Glimpse of Convict Life

Arizona’s First Territorial Prison

The Yuma Territorial Prison is Arizona Territory’s first prison.  It started operating in July 1, 1876. This facility was constructed by the convicts themselves. As a prison, it was a model institution for its time. It was not a pleasure palace, though. Those who attempted to escape got the ball and chain. Other prisoners who did not follow prison rules were placed in the “Dark Cell.”

This former prison, which housed a total of 3,069 prisoners, operated for only 33 years. That was a short life.  The prison had to close due mainly to overcrowding.  As the institution was located on the top of a butte, there simply was no more room to build more cells. The last prisoner left the institution in September 15, 1909. To replace this prison, the convicts built a new facility in Florence, Arizona.

Lives of Convicts

The people who served their time in this facility came from different cultural backgrounds. Their crimes ranged from murder to polygamy.  Among the 3,069 prisoners, only 29 of them were women. Women did get the same treatment as the men.

Prisoners had regular medical attention, and the facility has its own hospital. There was even electric lighting, something that the host city of Yuma did not have.  In their spare time, the inmates made handcrafted items.  These items were sold in weekly Sunday bazaars.. It housed a quite a nice library.  Many of the prisoners learned to read and write, and some even studied law. Most of the fees charged for tours were used to buy additional books for this library.

Death of Convicts

The county government still administered executions, and no prisoner was executed in the prison itself. One hundred eleven convicts died while serving their sentence. Most of these were due to tuberculosis, a real problem during that time.

The Dark Cell

There is no documentation regarding deaths of prisoners in the Dark Cell. The Dark Cell was a room hollowed out of the rock face that was literally “dark” during midday.  Many paranormal researchers do believe that spirits of the dead prisoners are usually drawn to this room.

Prisoners moved to the Dark Cell are confined there with no toilet and no bed to sleep on.  Often, several would be stuffed in together, making the small room even more unbearable.

After the Facility Closed

From 1910 to 1914, the facility was used by the Yuma Union High School. The empty cells were used to house hobos riding freights during the 1920’s. During the Depression, a lot of homeless families took refuge in this place.

Over time, parts of the structure were destroyed. Some townspeople saw the buildings as a source of free construction materials. In addition to fires, weathering and railroad construction, all that is left, are the cells, main gate and guard tower.

The old prison even became the back drop for Hollywood. Movies such as the 1939 “Beau Geste”, featuring a young Gary Cooper, used the facility as a location.  As filming was often done at the area’s Imperial Sand Dunes, the prison was often and ideal location shoot.

Becoming a Museum

In fact, having the old prison appear in a movie  may have finally prompted the locals to regard the prison has having a historical value. In 1941, it was preserved as a museum.  The museum was outfitted with photographs and exhibits displaying the life lead by the inmates.  In 1961, this museum became a state historic park.

Haunted or not, a lot of tourists still visit this state historic park. It gives the people a glimpse of the place’s history. Of course, through the museum, anyone can see how it was like being a convict a century ago.

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