Friday, January 16, 2015

Yuma Territorial Prison, Arizona

The other day, I went to prison again. The first time was Alcatraz in California some years ago, this time it was the Yuma Territorial Prison in Arizona. I committed no crime, it just happens that I like touring strange, unique places.

The Yuma prison was in operation for 33 years, from 1876 to 1909 and there was a total of 3,069 prisoners housed there during that time, including 29 women. The main cellblock was set up to hold 204 prisoners, but there had been times the population increased to 240. A 9' x 12' cell would hold 6 prisoners, bunks stacked 3 on each side of the cell. Prisoners were jailed for any type of cime from adultery and polygamy to murder and mayhem.

Punishment in the prison was sometimes a ball and chain or, in more extreme cases, the Dark Cell. The Dark Cell was a large room dug into the hillside with only a small vent built into the ceiling for air and light. Prisoners were put in an iron cell inside, in just their underwear. They were given no bedding and there were no restroom facilities. Depending on the severity of the infraction committed, the prisoner could be sentenced anywhere from one day to multiple days in the Dark Cell. One man spent 104 days straight in that cell, but when he was released back into the regular prison area, he turned out to be a model prisoner. The Dark Cell was not solitary and at one time, was occupied by 3 women prisoners.

Mug shots were taken of all prisoners and the photo below shows a special mirror that was used to show a side view as well as a front view.  The prisoner would sit in a chair, put his shoulder under the curved part of the frame on the bottom and the side of his face would be shown in the mirror and captured on film.  The mirror is reflecting a wood paneled wall in this photo. 

In 1887 there was an escape planned by 7 prisoners. This happened at the Sallyport, the main entrance to the cellbock areas, and has been known as the Gates Riot. Superintendent Gates was taken as hostage and he ordered the prison guards to shoot the prisoners. When it was all over, some prisoners were killed and the others were recaptured.

There was a hospital above the main cellblock, which include offices, operating rooms and ward rooms. Sometimes, prisoners from other areas would be transported to this hospital. At this time, nothing remains of this second story.

In 1910, a year after the prison closed, the Yuma High School was housed in the prison until 1914. At a football game one day, the opposing team started taunting the students, calling them "criminals". Instead of being insulted, the students decided that would be a great nickname for the team - and was sometimes shortened to "Crims". The high school team still goes by this name.

In 1923, the railroad tore down some of the buildings to build a new railroad bridge, which is still in use today.  These tracks are well used, I managed to catch photos of a couple different trains that went by while I was in the park.

From 1941 to 1960, the prison was a City Museum and then turned over to the State of Arizona to become the third state park. In 2010, the state was going to close the park, but the citizens of Yuma voted to take over the park, rehabilitate it and run it as a city park.  I'm glad they have been taking care of a piece of history because I enjoyed the tour.

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