In the late 1800s, the territorial prison in Yuma, Arizona, had flush toilets, electricity, and the only telephone in town. Some people called it “The Hotel.” Others called it a “Hellhole.”
Today the prison is operated as a museum by Arizona State Parks and is part of the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area. The cells are now clean, almost pristine. The grounds are landscaped with a green lawn, and the dusty, gravely outer yard where lawbreakers once walked is raked and free of debris. Volunteers guide guests on tours.
It has been documented that the prison was humanely administered and a model institution in its time, but if cellblock walls could talk, we would likely hear horror stories. The prison had an infamous reputation.
The prison opened on July 1, 1876, when the first seven inmates were locked into new cells they had built themselves. In fact, the prison was self-sustaining; prisoners grew crops, made their clothing, built buildings, and maintained grounds. At that time, it cost the Territory of Arizona only two cents per meal to feed prisoners. The total cost of keeping a prisoner in the late 1800s was $56 a year.
The prison existed in Yuma for only 33 years before it became overcrowded and was replaced by a prison in Florence. During that time, the Yuma prison housed more than 3,000 inmates, including 39 women. A big iron cage surrounded by granite made up the main cell area. Each 7x9x13-foot space of cold concrete held six inmates on narrow bunks. A slop bucket and a ring were in the center of the floor. If an inmate disobeyed rules, he was chained to the ring with a heavy ball. In order to deter disobedience, the prison superintendent declared that if one inmate in the cell had to be chained, they would all be chained.
While walking around the premises, one can easily romanticize the lives of those who were once incarcerated in the cold cellblocks. But the reality was far from romantic. As prisoners were processed into the institution, the men had their heads and faces shaved. One inmate was selected as barber, which was a better job than working in the fields in summertime. Each inmate received a striped uniform from material provided by Levi Strauss, two pairs of underwear, two hats, two handkerchiefs, and boots.
Many prisoners died of tuberculosis, although the prison provided good medical care at a hospital built on top of the cellblock. Sick inmates from other prisons in Arizona were shipped there to be cured.
No talking was allowed after lockup at night, and stories are told that men wrote notes on scraps of paper, tied them onto sewer roaches, and tossed the bugs out of one cell to scurry down to the next. Wooden bunks became infested with bed bugs and were replaced with iron bunks.
The prison population included cowboys, ministers, and lawyers charged with everything from murder, rape and robbery to cheating, polygamy, and seduction under the promise of marriage.
The maximum-security building, a place for incorrigible inmates, had 14-foot walls with two windows on the sides and a corrugated iron roof, which made the Arizona heat unbearable in summertime. The building was the ultimate punishment at the prison, surpassing even the horrid conditions of the dark room, a steel cage built into a cave with only an air hole at the top. The men relegated to this room were stripped down to their underwear, and dragging a ball and chain, entered a passageway into total darkness in a little space with no furniture or bathroom facilities. They were fed only hard tack and water. The longest a prisoner spent in the dark room was 14 consecutive days. However, one man accumulated 115 days in the deplorable cave. Not all the prisoners sent to the dark cell were men. The punished prisoners included Rosa Duran, who was imprisoned for grand larceny, and Elena Estrada, who stabbed her husband numerous times and claimed he kept throwing himself into the knife.
Prison life may have been harsh, but there were bright spots. Madora Ingalls, the wife of one of the superintendents, began leaving her newspaper on a table in the yard for the inmates to read, and then solicited reading materials in Yuma to start a prison library. A classroom was established to allow educated inmates to teach others to read and write, do math, make music, and even learn languages. Everybody at the prison worked, so inmates could leave with a basic education and training in skills such as carpentry, woodworking, or even lace making. Shops were available for the inmates to use on Sundays, and they could sell any crafts they had made on their own. Those who played instruments participated in a jam session.
Every Sunday morning, a chapel held worship services, giving different denominations slots of time. On Sunday afternoons, the prison opened for visitor’s day. For a long time, the only library in Yuma was at the prison. So for a 25-cent admission, townspeople could have lunch, go to a “craft market,” access the library, visit with inmates, and hear music.
Today, the strains of music have faded, but the faces and remnants of lives remain in the museum’s exhibits. Guides tell tourists the stories of prisoners and their guards. The ruins of the old prison transport imaginations back to a time when men and women from all walks of life paid the same price for missteps outside the laws of the Arizona Territory.
Arline Chandler and her photographer husband, Lee Smith, live in Heber Springs, Arkansas. Follow Arline’s blog, “RV Travel Tales,” at RVLife.com.
IF YOU GO:
The Yuma Territorial Prison is open year-round. Hours from now through May 31 are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission is $6 for persons 14 and older, $3 for youths 7 to 13, and free for children 6 and younger.
For information, visit Azstateparks.com/parks/YUTE/index.html.
Nikki is a writer and editor for Do It Yourself RV, RV LIFE, and Camper Report. She is based on the Oregon Coast and has traveled all over the Pacific Northwest.