I guess we, like others, have an interest in the macabre. Why does anyone want to see a prison? For me, I love the historical significance of places like this. And, yes, I have to admit that the stories about the individuals who were incarcerated here are, in some instances, fascinating!
The entrance to the park is through the Visitor Center. Admission is $6/adult (our Arizona State Park annual pass covered the admission fee). There is also a gift shop in the Visitor Center. It is built on the original foundation of the prison's mess hall.
Granite markers provide a general timeline/history of the prison. It opened in 1876 and closed in 1909 when prisoners were moved to the new Florence prison. During the 33 years of operation, 3,069 prisoners (29 of them women) were incarcerated here. The bridge in the photo below spans the Colorado River.
Drinking water was piped into an 85,000-gallon-holding tank from the Colorado River. The Guard House was built (in 1882) over the water tank and provided expansive views of the prison and the vista beyond. Other guard towers were built, but have not been restored after being destroyed by fire. Originally there was a wooden fence around the prison that was replaced by an 18' adobe wall constructed in the 1880s. It, and many other original structures of the prison, no longer exist.
Below is the restored "Sallyport" (constructed in 1855) that was the entrance to the prison. It was wide enough for a wagon, but had a door within the iron gates to restrict passage through the entrance when needed.
The museum has lots of interesting displays with information and artifacts about the prisoners, superintendents (aka wardens), guards, and physicians associated with the Yuma Territorial Prison.
Here is a rundown of the crimes committed by the prisoners incarcerated here. Those that committed non-violent crimes (like adultery or polygamy) were frequently mixed in with those that committed more serious crimes like murder and assault.
There were displays about those who tried to escape, those associated with Tombstone, AZ, and Madora Ingalls, a wife of one of the wardens. She worked to educate/rehab the prisoners and was instrumental in setting up the library. She was well-loved and respected by them.
Some of the local community referred to the prison as a "country club" as it had many modern amenities for the time. Electricity was brought to the prison in 1884.
Here are a couple of the more infamous prisoners held here.
The Lowell Battery Gun was purchased and installed in the guard tower in 1884.
The main cell block held 204 prisoners although there were as many as 240 held here during overcrowding. The cells were 9' x 12' and held 6 prisoners with one chamber pot that was emptied daily.
The cells were opened in the mornings and locked at night when prisoners returned from their work assignments. All prisoners had 48-hour-a-week work details in the fields, rock quarry, kitchen, sewing shop, adobe yard, wood yard, or prison construction. Off hours and on Sunday's they were free to engage in crafts, reading, or relaxing. Some of the crafts included lace making, shell and onyx carving, wood and metal crafts, and making horsehair items (belts, hat bands, watch fobs, rope). These items were offered for sale to the public in a monthly craft fair. A share of the profit was saved for contributing prisoners and given to them when they were released.
Wooden cots were replaced with iron ones in 1901 to get rid of the bed bugs that had become "an intolerable nuisance." Most of the prisoners that died here suffered from consumption (tuberculosis) although there were some suicides and/or injury-related deaths.
Prisoners that failed to follow the rules (fighting, gambling, etc.) were punished with time in the Dark Cell (built in 1894). The punishments ranged from hours to weeks. The longest stay in the Dark Cell was 104 days and the convict was reportedly a model prisoner following the punishment. Prisoners were placed in a cage in the cell in their underwear. They were given only bread and water daily and their were no toilet facilities (not even a chamber pot). If additional prisoners broke the rules, they were just shoved in the cage with the others already there. Very unpleasant, indeed!
In 1904, the Incorrigible Ward was built with 5 steel cages in a cell house constructed with 4,000 adobe bricks made by the prisoners. Habitual problem prisoners were held here. The structure no longer remains, but below is a photo of one of the original cages. The others were moved to the Florence prison when the Yuma Territorial Prison closed in 1909.
Women prisoners presented challenges to the Yuma Territorial Prison. The first one, Lizzie Gallagher, was incarcerated in 1878 for manslaughter. She was held in solitary until she was pardoned and released just 42 days later. Another notorious female prisoner was Manuella Fimber who gave birth to a son (Luis) while serving time for accessory to murder. Two years into her five-year sentence she was pardoned and released. In 1891 a women's cell was built next to the Dark Cell (dug out from rock). Additional women's cells were built when the New Yard was opened in 1900.
Originally there was a structure in the middle of the yard where those suffering with tuberculous were housed. Some of these cells have been restored while others retain carvings from inhabitants on the walls.
After the prison closed in 1909, it was used as the Yuma High School from 1910 to 1914. During the 1920s, empty cells provided free lodging for hobos riding freight trains. During the Depression years, they provided shelter for homeless families.
We very much enjoyed our self-guided tour of this facility. The museum provides lots of interesting details about the prison, prisoners, and guards. If you are in the area, this is a great piece of history that should not be missed. For additional information about the historic state park, see their website.