Yuma Territorial Prison was opened on July 1, 1876 when the first seven inmates entered and were locked into the new cells they had built themselves. The site is now called Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park. When you visit the grounds you can walk through the actual strap iron cells and solitary chambers of Arizona Territory’s first prison.
A total of 3,069 prisoners, including 29 women spent time there during the prison’s 33 years of operation. Prisoner’s crimes ranged from murder to polygamy. One hundred eleven persons died while serving their sentences, most from tuberculosis, which was common throughout the territory. By 1907, the prison was severely overcrowded. The convicts constructed a new facility in Florence, Arizona. The last prisoner left Yuma on September 15, 1909.
There was no shade in the prison court yard. Yuma is in southwest Arizona next to the Mexican border, so it is hot. Also Yuma is the sunniest city in the world, followed by Phoenix.
Some things I learned:
- During their free time, prisoners hand-crafted many items which were sold at public bazaars held at the prison on Sundays after church services.
- Prisoners had regular medical attention and access to a good hospital.
- Schooling was available for convicts, and many learned to read and write 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 furnished power for lights and ran a ventilation system in the cellblock. The city of Yuma did not have this benefit.
- The Yuma Union High School occupied the 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 Depression.