Walking through the strap iron cells and solitary chambers of Arizona Territory’s first prison.
The Eighth Arizona Territorial Legislature of 1875 proposed a bill calling for the establishment of a penitentiary. It would be built next to the Colorado River, upon a hill donated to the Territory by the village of Yuma, where work on the prison was soon underway.
On July 1, 1876, seven convicts were led up Prison Hill, and placed in their permanent quarters, which they’d helped build. Construction had not yet been completed, so work by the convicts continued. The working convicts also dug tunnels beneath the prison to allow river water to flow beneath it to help keep it cool.
During its 33 years of operation over 3,000 men and 29 women were jailed here, often for odd crimes, according to displays in the Prison museum. Men were imprisoned for being Mormons or Mexican revolutionaries, women for rape, adultery, and for selling liquor to Indians.
Strap Iron 3D
Sitting on a bluff overlooking the Colorado River, three miles west of the confluence of the Colorado and the historic Gila River, stand the ruins of Arizona’s famous Territorial Prison, and a short distance west are the remaining buildings that served as a part of the Yuma Quartermaster’s Depot.
The main guard tower overlooks the entire prison. Beneath the wooden tower is the rock-walled reservoir, filled by the Colorado River.
A huge strap iron grilled gate guards the entrance to the prison yard.
Most prisoners shuddered at the mention of “the dark hole,” a cave measuring 15 x 15 feet, dug into a rock hill, with a strap iron cage in the middle.
My shadow in the hole. The “hole” was where prisoners confined to solitary confinement ended up. Usually one stay would correct even the most incorrigible prisoner’s attitude as he or she sat in the pitch black hole, and was fed bread and water a couple of times a day.
Despite the reputation of the Yuma prison being a brutal place, the punishments here were very humane for the time and mostly consisted of the “dark cell”, a place of isolation for the rule breakers, and a ball and chain for those who tried to escape. It was considered a model institution and the prisoners had regular medical attention, access to a good hospital and even the opportunity to learn to read and write while incarcerated. The prison housed one of the first “public” libraries in the territory and visitors were charged a fee to tour the prison and to check out books. One of the earliest electric generating plants in the western states furnished light and ventilation for the cell blocks.
Surrounding the prison was an impressive wall totally confining the prison yard. Solid rock served as the foundation of the walls which were masterfully engineered. Atop the solid stone wall adobe bricks were used to construct the walls, approximately sixteen to eighteen feet high, and the base of the walls averaged eight feet thick at the bottom and five feet at the top.
One hundred eleven persons died while serving their sentences, most from tuberculosis, which was common throughout the territory. Of the many prisoners who attempted escape, twenty-six were successful, but only two were from within the prison confines. No executions took place at the prison because capital punishment was administered by the county government. By 1907, the prison was severely overcrowded, and there was no room on Prison Hill for expansion. Convicts constructed a new facility in Florence, Arizona, and the last prisoner left Yuma on September 15, 1909. The Yuma Union High School occupied these 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 Great Depression. Townspeople have always considered the abandoned complex a source for free building materials. This, together with fires, weathering and railroad construction, destroyed the prison walls and most of the buildings. What remains — the cells, the main gate and the guard tower — still provide a glimpse of convict life a century ago in the Arizona Territory.
Yuma Territorial Prison Museum & Park
220 N. Prison Hill Road, Yuma, AZ 85364