Clearly, Elena was a woman you wouldn’t want to cross. Her gruesome deed is described in the book Prison Centennial, 1876-1976, a Pictorial History of the Arizona Territorial Prison at Yuma by Cliff Trafzer and Steve George.
Today, the Yuma Territorial Prison is an Arizona state historic park and a perfect place for snowbirds to spend a few hours in the desert sun catching a glimpse of the harsh realities of the Old West. It’s where they confined desperadoes like Buckskin Frank Leslie, a gunman fond of good whiskey and fast women; Three Fingered Jack Laustenneau, a political agitator, and Pearl Hart, a robber of stagecoaches and trains.
More than 3,000 inmates, including 29 women, lived in the prison during its 33-year history that began in 1876. The first seven prisoners had to build their own cells. With the help of prison labor, construction projects expanded capacity to 350 before the prison was closed in 1909.
To discourage escapes, a huge wall, built of adobe bricks upon a foundation of solid rock, surrounded the entire prison yard to a height of 16 to 18 feet. The walls at the base were about eight feet thick, tapering to five feet at the top. Walkways on top enabled armed guards to patrol the entire yard.
The main guard tower, which still stands, overlooked the entire region, including the City of Yuma, the nearby Colorado River, the prison yard, and the main gate, called the sally port. The sally port passed through the main wall with a double gate arrangement that permitted a wagon team to enter or leave while keeping one gate closed at all times.
Some 140 escape attempts were recorded, but only 26 were successful, and these were mostly by trusties working outside the prison walls. In October 1887, the bloodiest escape attempt occurred at the sally port resulting in serious injury to the superintendent, Thomas Gates. Gates was well thought of in the community and was described by the Arizona Sentinel in an article dated April 2, 1887: “He is certainly a very efficient superintendent, whose only fault is being a Democrat.” Not that the Sentinel was biased, but that paper also reported on September 27, 1887: “There are 133 inmates of the penitentiary, and only one Republican.”
During the escape attempt called the “Gates Riot,” seven inmates took Gates hostage and attempted to leave through the sally port. Gunfire ensued and four inmates were shot dead, one wounded, and two recaptured. Gates never fully recovered from a knife wound to the neck, and the chronic pain drove him to suicide in 1896.
By modern standards the prison was primitive, even inhumane. Newly arriving prisoners would be assigned a number, shaved bald, photographed, bathed, and issued a uniform. Then they would report to a cell, approximately nine feet by 12 feet, to be shared with five other inmates.
The cells were made of granite stone reinforced with strap iron, plastered, and whitewashed. Prisoners slept on a mattress made of a long cloth bag stuffed with straw. Beds were originally wood, but later converted to iron to discourage bedbug infestations. Termites sometimes ate the straw, which had to be periodically replaced. A chamber pot provided the only restroom facility during the night when cells were locked. An iron ring was cemented into the floor to which the prisoner could be chained for punishment if necessary.
In its time, the prison was considered a model institution. Construction, mostly by inmates, was an ongoing process. Such amenities as running water, flush toilets, a kitchen, photo gallery, bakery, bathing room, and even a fine library, the first of its kind in the territory, were provided.
The first electrical power generator in the region was built at the prison, providing power for large ventilation blowers to help ameliorate the intense heat. The electricity was shared with the City of Yuma.
Prisoners were offered excellent medical care, rehabilitation programs, and opportunities to learn blacksmithing, shoemaking, electrical work, and carpentry. Prisoners could also learn to read and write or study music and languages. In fact, some townspeople viewed the prison environment as too soft. The Arizona Sentinel wrote in June 1896: “One can go any day to the prison and see convicts singing and skylarking, joking, and all-in-all having a grand old time at the expense of the taxpayer. It is well known here that the prison on the hill is more a place of recreation and amusement than servitude.”
In spite of the apparent “country club” atmosphere, punishment could be harsh. Offenders could be locked inside an iron cage in a “dark cell,” a 15- by 15-foot cave dug into the caliche hillside. Prisoners were stripped to their underwear and fed only bread and water once a day. The only light entering the cell came from a small ventilation shaft in the ceiling, and prisoners were denied contact with other people. The dark cell was reserved for the worst offenses, including opium possession, stealing, and refusing to work.
Lesser punishments included chaining prisoners to the floor in their cells or attaching a ball and chain around the ankle for attempting to escape. Solitary confinement was provided for such offenses as fighting, littering, swearing, gambling, or not bathing.
Interestingly enough, sentences served by territorial prisoners were relatively light by modern standards. This was motivated in part by politics. In those days the territorial population was small. To gain clout, politicians needed as many qualified voters as they could get. Accordingly, most of the prisoners were released with relatively light sentences. They were generally given a full pardon shortly before release so they could be put back on the voting rolls.
By 1909 the Arizona Territorial Prison at Yuma outgrew the space available and outlived its usefulness. Prisoners were transported to other locations and the prison abandoned. The facility was variously used as a hospital, high school, and headquarters for a Veterans of Foreign Wars post. Later it was used as a movie set for the likes of Gene Autry and John Wayne. Fire and deterioration took their toll and the facility fell into disarray. Much of the materials were scavenged for use as building materials elsewhere.
In 1961 the State of Arizona took over the facility and established the Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park.
Now, visitors to the Yuma area have the opportunity to stand in the main guard tower where armed guards once stood surveying prison grounds and the surrounding area. No doubt the view has changed since those days, but you can still look down on the same sally port where the seven prisoners staged their fatal breakout attempt. You can walk through the cellblock and peer inside the cramped cells that once held six prisoners. If you are not faint of heart, you can even step inside the dark cell and try to visualize what it would be like to spend day after day in the dark in your underwear with nothing to sustain you but bread and water once a day. It’s the kind of place where you almost expect to find Hannibal Lecter staring back at you.
Park officials have established a museum preserving historical artifacts and capturing the history of the people and events that occurred there. The museum and grounds are open to the public. The book by Cliff Trafzer and Steve George mentioned at the beginning of this article is on sale at the museum as is a very informative booklet, The Prison Chronicle, Yuma Territorial Prison’s Colorful Past, published by Arizona State Parks. Also available is a sheet of reprints of articles from the Arizona Sentinel, published by Arizona State Parks. Much of the material in this article came from those sources. They provide a fascinating window on the past.
To reach the park take Interstate 8 west into Yuma, take exit 1 and turn east on Harold Giss Parkway. Proceed about an eighth of a mile and turn north on Prison Hill Road.
For more information, contact the park at 1 Prison Hill Road, Yuma, AZ 85364, phone (928) 783-4771, or see www.desertusa.com/yuma/du_yumatp.html.
Arnold J. Theisen is a freelance writer living in Irrigon, Oregon. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.