Yesterday we visited the Yuma Territorial Prison State Historical Park and learned some interesting facts about the infamous prison which was in use from 1876 to 1909.
One of the things we learned was that most of the 3069 prisoners were pardoned (instead of being paroled) before their term was completed, allowing former prisoners to vote when released. The territory of Arizona needed voters.
Thirty nine prisoners were women and they were often released early because, without good separate facilities, the women were more trouble than they were worth. Some were released with the provision that they leave the territory.
The visitor center highlights a few of the more notorious prisoners including RL McDonald who, as superintendent of the Phoenix School District, embezzled funds. Because of his money savvy, he was put in charge of the prisoners’ monies. Upon his release, it was discovered that he once again embezzled funds. Duh?
Prisoners were incarcerated for a variety of crimes including burglary, murder, robbery, adultery, selling liquor to the Indians, obstructing the railroad, seduction, polygamy, and prize fighting. Very few prisoners escaped (28) because of the isolation with the desert on one side and a much more vigorous Colorado River on the other. No prisoners were executed on site.
Prisoners worked 48 hours per week on the prison grounds and learned a variety of trades. The prison was mostly self sufficient and there were many opportunities to learn skills which could benefit a prisoner when released. During off hours prisoners were able to make crafts, including the knitted lace below, which were sold at a public bazaar on Sunday afternoons. If a prisoner took advantage of the opportunities, he or she could leave prison with marketable skills and a small nest egg.
Although infamous, the prison was really quite progressive in its operation. Prisoners had opportunities to learn to read, write and do arithmetic. They had opportunity to learn English, Spanish and to play a musical instrument. Classes were taught by guards or by prisoners with those skills.
There was an onsite library, also available to the public, that was one of the first in the territory. Visitors paid a 25 cent fee to the prison for musical programs, tours or to borrow books and the monies were used to buy more books.
There was a well maintained onsite hospital and dental care was also available. One hundred eleven prisoners died while in prison, most from consumption (tuberculosis).
Yuma residents sometimes thought prisoners lived better than they did because the prison had gravity running water, telephone service and a basic ventilation system. It also had lighting due to one of the first power generation systems in the area. The prison sold electricity to the town of Yuma after 9:00 pm.
Although this all sounds pretty good, it was not a club med prison!
There were six inmates housed in each small cell. There was also the dreaded “dark cell” for those who didn’t behave. We were able to go into each and have a brief experience. Neither were anywhere we would want to spend any time!
From its beginnings in 1876, the prison had an interesting run. Seven prisoners built the first two cells and moved in. Prisoners continued to build cells to allow for increased population. In 1878, the first escape occurred and the first female was imprisoned. The prison closed due to over-crowding in 1909 and the prisoners were moved to the new prison in Florence.
After their school burned, Yuma High School moved onto the site from 1910 to 1914. Former and current students are called the “Criminals” or “Crims”.
The county hospital used the site for a number of years and hobos stayed in the cells during the 1920’s. Depression era families moved in during the 1930’s and Yuma locals used the site to obtain free building supplies.
In 1939 local residents evicted the squatters and made the first efforts to protect the site for its historical value. Yuma residents raised monies to restore some of the buildings, beginning with this guard tower. The city operated the park until the site became Arizona’s third state park in 1961.
In 2010 the state of Arizona resolved to close the park due to the budget crisis. Once again the residents of Yuma raised awareness and monies to save the Yuma Territorial Prison Historical Park and keep it open.
Although few buildings remain (original or reconstructions), the prison park was very interesting and worth the time we spent there.
Now that we have seen it, we are interested in watching some of the movies filmed at the prison. The most famous movie about the prison, “3:10 to Yuma” (both the original and the remake) contain no scenes from the site! Movies filmed at the prison are To Kill a Memory (2012), Riot (1969), Badlands (1958 – a cell entrance was lowered for this movie to make Alan Ladd look taller), Red River Valley (1936), Three Mousketeers (1933) and three silent films, one each in 1919, 1917 and 1914. Popcorn?
I love that “…Yuma locals used the site to obtain free building supplies.”. Good way to put it!
My family lived in Arizona in 1967 with my father assigned to Luke AFB in Phoenix. I remember our visit to the Yuma Prison. It left an impression!! Mark
My parents lived at Yuma Proving Ground for a couple years while I was in college in Flagstaff. I don’t remember ever going there. Randy grew up in Tucson and never went there. Glad we finally made it!
I love reading your blogs – ever the teacher, Serene, you make learning history where you travel fun and interesting to others! It is so great traveling vicariously along with you three. Give your sweet dog some attention from me. 🙂
Thanks Karen. It is always nice to hear people enjoy the blog. Elko liked his extra attention!