Behind the Walls of Yuma Territorial Prison

Yuma, Az Yuma Territorial Prison main gate

At the far edge of Arizona Territory, a sturdy prison was built to house the notorious and the unfortunate. Today it is a much visited State Park.

Where the Colorado and Gila Rivers come together, on the bluff of a hill outside Yuma, the Arizona Legislature authorized a prison be built in the year 1875. Some of those sentenced to the jail were set to work building what would become their home.

The Prison Compound

In existence for only 33 years, Yuma Territorial Prison struck fear into the criminals who were sentenced to spend time there. While many modern improvements of the time were included in the complex, it also contained the “Dark Cell”, a place of punishment for those who did not abide by the regulations of the day. Stories are told of guards dropping snakes and scorpions down into the dark stone space where a prisoner could only imagine what any movement might mean.

The first building erected was a water tank to supply the facility. One of the guard towers was built over it, both for height in overlooking the prison yard, and to keep the water from evaporating in the hot desert sun. The location in southeastern Arizona Territory was hot and dry in summer and had cold winter nights and spring floods.

Where once many buildings stood, today only a few remain but they clearly show the life of a prisoner and the administration at the time. Walking through the gateway arch, around the former cellblock, and observing the spaces that once held the hospital, library, and vocational training areas, it is plain that this was an advanced penal institution. In fact, when the town of Yuma was still lacking electricity, the prison had an early generating station. There was also an advanced ventilation system throughout the cellblock to bring some degree of relief in the hot desert climate.

Sites to be Toured at the Prison

Entry to the Historical Park is through the visitor’s center where several displays begin to tell the story of those who spent time at the Yuma Territorial Prison. A good first stop is the museum building where a video presentation introduces the park and its history.

In the museum itself, there are many exhibits with artifacts from the prisoners, guards, and wardens who lived and worked at the prison. Many records have been carefully preserved so the names, dates, crimes, and punishments can be clearly seen. A total of 3,069 people, including 39 women, were housed within the walls during its 33 years of occupation.

The self-guided tour includes the cellblock where prisoners were kept, six to a cell; solitary confinement cubicles; the infamous “dark cell” for those who broke prison rules; and a set of leg irons placed on those who tried to escape. The “new prison”, a later addition, includes the women’s quarters.

A selection of books, souvenirs, postcards, and such is available at the visitor’s center.

Later Uses of the Property

When the prison was moved to larger quarters in 1909, the local Yuma High School took over the hospital and library buildings. Classes were held there until 1914. Because of the close proximity to the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks, the vacant buildings became shelter for hobos riding the rails. During the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl migration to California, homeless families made use of the stout stone walls and vacant cells.

Local Yuma townspeople tore down several of the buildings to use the materials elsewhere so that today the prison facility is much smaller than it was originally. As the town grew, some of the former prison land was developed and over time, less and less of the penal complex remained.

When the State Historical Park Commission gained control, it realized that refurbishing was necessary to protect the remaining structures. Today, the site is a major tourist attraction in Yuma and tells a significant part of the Arizona Territory story.

Beyond the prison walls, there are hikes to a convict burial ground, a former prison garden plot, the river itself, and the Yuma Crossing State Park.