Yuma Territorial Prison
In the second half of the 1800’s people rushed west to claim land for themselves, to pan for gold, and to build their own prison cells. The latter wasn’t actually a plan, but it is what happened to the first of the criminals to be imprisoned in Yuma Territorial Prison. The first inmates were required to build their own cells. The prison officially opened in July of 1876.
Yuma Territorial was named Hellhole by the inmates that were incarcerated there. The average summer daytime temperature in Yuma was 110 degrees. Hellhole, indeed. Cells were open-air, with no air conditioning or heaters for the winter nights in the desert.
In it’s 33 years of operation the prison housed an assortment of criminals. 3,069 prisoners were in and out of the Hellhole population, including 29 women, and for a few years, even one child that was born at the prison by his incarcerated mother.
The prison was under constant construction during its years of operation, with most of the work being done by the inmates. I would think that building your own cage is an especially fudged up kind of prison.
While the inmates claimed the conditions were hell, they also took advantage of various clubs, sports teams, and live music. The prison band was apparently quite good.
Besides the dreadful heat of an Arizona summer, the Hellhole was also named with their solitary confinement in mind. The Dark Cell. The dark cell was used as solitary for prisoners misbehaving. The cell was a 10×10 dug out of the rock. Aptly named, the dark cell had no open windows, only a small vent in the ceiling that guards would drop the prisoners’ daily meal of bread and water through. At night, there was not a speck of light available to the inmate shackled in the solitary cell, wearing only his skivvies. Prisoners with an extended stay in the dark cell were often sent to the state run insane asylum in Phoenix upon their release from solitary. The dark cell is said to be haunted…and with the trauma of being left in pitch black with only the bats for company, I can see why it might be…although if I was a ghostly presence hanging out in prison in the after life, I would probably haunt the kitchen, not the dark cell.
Due to overcrowding, Yuma Territorial Prison was shut down in 1909. The prisoners were sent to a larger prison in Florence, Arizona. After the closure of the prison, the local schools used the facility for a few years. By 1920 the empty prison was being used as shelter by the homeless, and during the depression it was transformed into temporary housing for unsheltered families.
Yuma Territorial Prison is now a state historical park. You can attend scheduled tours by volunteers, or follow a self-guided tour through the prison campus. There are many artifacts and photographs of the years as a prison, as well as historical documents and history of individual inmates and guards.