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Yuma Territorial Prison is a living museum of the Old West. More than 3,000 desperadoes, convicted of crimes ranging from polygamy to murder, were imprisoned in rock and adobe cells here during the prison’s 33-year existence between 1876 and 1909. The cells, main gate and guard tower are still standing, providing visitors with a glimse of convict life in the Southwest a century ago.Description
The Territorial Prison at Yuma, Arizona, is a fascinating side trip to take when in the Yuma area. The entrance of this famous prison was shown in many western movies you might remember, where the bad guys ended up going in or coming out the main gate.The prison has been closed since 1909 and is now run as a state historical park.
During a recent June visit the temperature was over 95 degrees, and it was easy to imagine what it must have been like to be imprisoned here during the summer a century ago. As one wanders through the old prison peering into the cells, you quickly notice the lack of plumbing and air conditioning. With only a bucket and an occassional breeze, it must have been a real challange for prisoners to survive in theTerritorial Prison at Yuma.
On July 1, 1876, the first 7 inmates entered the Territorial Prison at Yuma and were locked into the new cells they had built themselves. A total of 3,069 prisoners, including 29 women, lived within these walls during the prison’s 33 years of operation. Their crimes ranged from murder to polygamy, with grand larceny being the most common. A majority served only portions of their sentences due to the ease with which paroles and pardons were obtained. One hundred eleven persons died while serving their sentences, most from tuberculosis, which was common throughout the territory. Of the many prisoners who attempted escape, 26 were successful and 8 died from gunshot wounds. No executions took place at the prison because capital punishment was administered by the county governments.
Despite an infamous reputation, the historical written record indicates that the prison was humanely administered and was a model institution for its time. The only punishments were the “dark cell” for inmates who broke prison regulations, and the “ball and chain” for those who tried to escape. Prisoners had free time during which they hand-crafted many items to be sold at public bazaars held at the prison on Sundays after church services. Prisoners also had regular medical attention and access to a good hospital.
Schooling was available for convicts, and many learned to read and write in here in prison. The prison housed one of the first “public” libraries in the territory, and the fee charged to visitors for a tour of the institution was used to purchase books. One of the early electrical generating plants in the West was utilized here to furnish power for lights and run a ventilation system in the cell blocks.
By 1907, the prison was severely overcrowded, and there was no room on Prison Hill for expansion. Convicts constructed a new facility in Florence, Arizona, and the last prisoner left Yuma on September 15, 1909.
The Yuma Union High School occupied these buildings from 1910 to 1914. Empty cells provided free lodging for hobos riding the freights in the 1920s and sheltered many homeless families during the Great Depression.
Townspeople have always considered the abandoned complex a source for free building materials. This, together with fires, weathering and railroad construction, destroyed the prison walls and most of the buildings. What remains — the cells, the main gate and the guard tower — still provide a glimpse of convict life a century ago in the Arizona Territory.
Haunted Moments ~Yuma Prison Arizona ~with your Host Rev Dr Theresa F Koch M.S.
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