Opened while Arizona was still a U.S. territory, the prison accepted its first inmate on July 1, 1876. For the next 33 years 3,069 prisoners, including 20 women, served sentences there for crimes ranging from murder to polygamy. The prison was under continuous construction with labor provided by the prisoners. In 1909, the last prisoner left the Territorial Prison for the newly constructed Arizona State Prison Complex located in Florence, Arizona. It was also the 3rd historic park in Arizona.
The first seven inmates entered the Territorial prison at Yuma, Arizona on July 1, 1876. They were locked into cells that they had constructed with their own hands. In the coming 33 years, a total of 3,069 prisoners, including 29 women, lived in the prison. Their crimes ranged from murder to polygamy, with grand larceny being the most common. During that time, 111 of the prisoners died, mostly from tuberculosis, but even so, the stories say that some of them never left this place, even in death.
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.
But all was not perfect and by 1907, the prison was severely overcrowded. The convicts constructed a new facility in Florence and the last of them were transferred away from Yuma by September 1909.
From 1910-1914, the former prison buildings were occupied by the Yuma High School and after that, empty cells provided fee lodging for hoboes and drifters who were riding the rails across the country. The Great Depression of the 1920’s saw the prison in use once more as homeless families took up residence, seeking shelter from the elements.
In the years that followed, the prison grew smaller and smaller as local residents saw the stones as free building material for homes and projects. This theft, along with fires, weather and railroad construction destroyed most of what was left of the place. Today, only the cells, the main gate and the tower … and the ghosts…. remain.
In addition to the prison itself being haunted, the offices and museum have also seen their share of strange happenings. Things are often moved about, lights turn on and off and on one occasion, coins from the cash register in the gift shop literally flew into the air and landed back in the drawer! Some believe that the spirits of prisoners past remain here, perhaps trapped within the walls of the prison itself. For some men, whether it was a humane facility or not, being chained up and jailed was a fate worse than death. Are they now reliving it for all eternity?