Saturday, February 27, 2016

Yuma Territorial Prison

As a student of the American West, whenever I’ve heard the name Yuma, I’ve always thought of the Territorial Prison located there. So when we decided to spend a few days in Yuma, the first place I wanted to see was the Yuma Territorial Prison.

Entrance to the park, with the watch tower located atop the water supply.

The prison opened for business on July 1, 1876, when 7 men who helped build the facility were locked into their cells. The prison would continue to operate for 33 years, during which time it would house a total of 3,069 prisoners, including 29 women.

The prison is perched on a bluff above the Colorado River. The historic downtown district of Yuma is located just to the west. In the early days of the prison, the citizens downtown could easily see the prison; perhaps its dominating presence helped keep some of them honest.

The tour of the prison begins at the gift shop. We purchased our 2 tickets for a total of $12 and were led outside and told briefly about what to expect. We began by climbing the main tower, which was actually located atop the prison’s water supply. At the top, we had a commanding view to the Yuma East Wetlands restoration project.

Back down on ground, we walked through the Sally Port, the check point through which prisoners entered and left the prison. The most notorious attempted prison escape at Yuma occurred here when several prisoners took the superintendent hostage and tried to force their way out. 4 of them were killed and the other captured.

The Sally Port, with the museum directly behind.

Just beyond the Sally Port is the prison museum. This building is located on the site of the original prison mess, and was built during the Great Depression, long after the prison had closed its doors to guests. A 7 or 8 minute film in the museum runs constantly, and is a great way to get some background on the prison.

Interior of museum. There are many interesting items here. Be sure to watch the informative film.
Continue through the museum out the back door and you will see the remaining cell blocks. At one time, the prison hospital was located atop these cell blocks, but that structure is now long gone. All of the cells except a few are locked, but step up to the bars. Some of the cells have audio recordings that are activated once you approach the cell. The “voices” tell prisoner stories. 6 prisoners were usually kept in each cell. During times of overcrowding, many were confined in the corridors.

The remaining cell block. The hospital was actually built on top, but it is long gone.

A typical cell. 6 prisoners would share this cell and the single chamber pot.

Just beyond the first cell block is the “Dark Cell,” which was carved out of a caliche hill. The “Dark Cell” was a type of punishment. Step through the door and down a 10 foot or so hallway. At the end is an enlarged cell. There is no window, so the only light is from the door down the hall. Often several prisoners at a time would be put in this cell, and some slow learners had to be housed here repeatedly. I was in there for only a few seconds and was happy to leave. I cannot imagine being in there for days on end.

Entrance to the dark cell, which was simply cut out of rock.

The short hall area leading to the cell. The door provides the only light for the cell.

The actual cell. You can see why it is called the "dark cell."
I enjoyed our visit to the prison, but I was happy to escape.

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