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SPECIAL REPORT: Treasures of the Desert Southwest – Yuma Territorial Prison State Park

YUMA, Ariz. (KYMA/KECY) - Another Treasure of the Desert Southwest was Arizona’s first state prison and now serves as a local museum.

The prison was the place where the Wild Wild West’s most wanted to build the prison they were getting booked into for a variety of crimes like robbing a stagecoach to polygamy.

Yuma Territorial Prison was authorized by Territorial Legislature in 1875 and is Arizona’s third state historic park.

Opening in the late 1800s, the first seven inmates were forced to build their own cells under the hot sun when they were booked on July 1, 1876.

Yuma Territorial Prison gained a reputation for being a "hell hole", but was actually very ahead of its time, making Yumans jealous of their living conditions.

Prisoners received medical care among other amenities like a school where they learned to read and write.

Daniela Hammond who's a representative of the prison tells me more about the amenities the inmates had.

“This prison was so far advanced from back in the day," said Hammond. "We had running water, we had electricity and so a lot of those amenities is what they had here that most local people didn’t have back in the day like flushing toilets, sewer.” 

There were a total of 3,069 inmates in the prison's 33 years of operation.

Inmates were booked for a variety of crimes, like grand larceny or murder and even some that are not even heard of anymore like robbing a stagecoach.

Hammond tells me this further drove locals to see their prison treatment as distasteful since inmates were committing such heinous crimes.

“They were getting somewhat treated well having the amenities that they were given here that many locals didn’t have, like the flushing toilets and the running water, electricity,” Hammond says.

And then there's the infamous “dark cell” which most call the most haunted area of the prison.

It was solitary confinement for any inmates causing trouble and those given this punishment were only fed bread and water once a day.

The longest time served inside the dark cell was 120 days by a heckler.

Some might think it was the place where many prisoners died, but not one single person passed away while serving their solitary time there.

“We had 14 men at one time in there they were stripped to their undershorts," said Hammond. "It was probably about like 5’5” feet tall so if you were a little bit taller than five feet you would be crunched down. People would always ask us, ‘Well why don’t they just sit down,?’ and well the thing is that wherever they sat, is where they did their business. So, most people didn’t want to sit down there.” 

Although jealousy of their living conditions spread around Yuma, it wasn’t the ideal situation.

Cellblocks didn't have central cooling and prisoners had to sleep on narrow bunks with iron bed frames.

The prison also had to upkeep Yuma’s first and only library and hospital for that time.

As far as female prisoners, Yuma Territorial had 29 of them.

“They worked Monday through Saturday, worked very hard. They would do their rock, there were some inmates that took up lacemaking," said Hammond. "They were taught a lot of things back then, you know, reading, writing, arithmetics. So when they could come in here, you know, not very knowledgable, they would leave here with knowledge. So, but like I said Monday through Saturday, Sunday was their rest day.”

The women’s cells were built in 1891 and they were booked in a prison where men outnumbered them all of the women had to toughen up to ensure men wouldn’t ridicule them.

But some of the women booked into Yuma Territorial Prison were some of the most ruthless, one booked for robbing the Globe to Florence stagecoach and a woman deemed the “heartbreaker” for murdering her lover.

“I think one of the most ruthless inmates I want to say is Elena Estrada," said Hammond. "She’s known as our 'heartbreaker' and her crime was that she caught her boyfriend cheating so she ripped his heart out and threw it in his face.”  

After being open for 33, the prison shut down in 1909 due to overcrowding.

The remaining prisoners were transferred to the prison in Florence.

The closed-down prison then became home to Yuma High School until 1914.

Fast forward nearly 100 years to 2010, the National Yuma Crossing Heritage Area stepped up to save what’s left of the state park and now manages it after the future of the prison was in limbo.

The prison looks a bit different from its heyday as the hospital caught on fire and the railroad was built on top of what is now the Ocean-to-Ocean bridge.

“The fire was from the hospital and the demolition with the railroad, it took out about 1/4 of the women’s cells to build the railroad tracks," said Hammond.

The cells, main gate and guard tower still stand to welcome all who step inside, just watch out for the ghost of a little girl that some say lurks around in here that will poke or pinch you.

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Jacqueline Aguilar


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