Now, I know what you’re thinking. Why on earth am I talking about a prison? Simple. I like its history and the Yuma Territorial Prison is now a locally-managed park.
Previously, it was an official Arizona State Park until budget cuts threatened its closure. Yuma was not about to let that happen and took on the goal of keeping it open and operating it at the city level in conjunction with the Yuma Crossing National Heritage area instead.
The Yuma Territorial Prison has quite an interesting past to it that has actually influenced part of Yuma’s more recent history as well.
The prison cells were actually built by the very inmates they would contain as their first ever prisoners, with their crimes ranging from murder to polygamy. July 1, 1876 was its first day of operation as the 7 inmates who had constructed the cells entered them as occupants. Over the 33 years that the prison was operational, there were 3,069 prisoners (29 of them women, some of which were pardoned because they didn’t know how to deal with women prisoners!).
The prison contains a viewing deck where you can see the Colorado River and the Quechan Indian Nation, St Thomas Mission, the railroad bridge, and the famous Ocean-to-Ocean Highway Bridge.
The Sally Port is one of the last remaining original adobe structures from the 1876 prison and served as the check point for prisoners to enter and exit through. It has been restored as authentically as possible.
The prison shut down operations in 1909 when the last prisoner was transferred to the newer state prison in Florence, AZ.
Perhaps some of the more interesting history to this prison is not as known outside of Yuma, but is an interesting story nonetheless. In 1910, shortly after the prison ceased operating as such, Yuma High School began holding classes at the prison and would continue doing so until 1914. I know you’re probably thinking I’m full of it…but, it’s a true story.
The original building for Yuma High School was destroyed in a fire leaving them without a space to hold classes. Coincidentally, the prison was no longer operating as a prison and was available–so Yuma High moved in temporarily and held classes in the cellblock areas of the prison as well as assemblies in the former prison hospital. They had a new campus built (which is still there to this day and is Yuma’s oldest high school) and eventually moved out of the prison and into their new building.
However- a new building would not end their affiliation with the Yuma Territorial Prison. To this day, the two are still intertwined. As the story goes, Yuma High traveled to Phoenix for a football game and wound up pulling out a win over Phoenix Union High School. Phoenix Union was expected to win and were poor sports when they lost to Yuma. Upset in defeat, they began razzing the players from Yuma and calling them criminals because of being taught in a prison. Those kids thought about it the whole drive back (it’s a 3 hour drive in today’s conditions, so it was probably much longer back then!) and they decided they quite liked being called the criminals. By 1917, it had stuck and was adopted as the official school mascot. Today, being a Yuma High Criminal is a point of pride among many alumni and the mascot has been nominated several times in USA Today’s Best Mascot annual contest.
Today, the Yuma Territorial Prison is a piece of Arizona’s history. You can visit and do a self-guided tour (entry is $8) as well as visit the museum to learn more about the prisoners that were housed in the prison, weaponry, and the reasons it was referred to as a hell hole. The reasons consisted of: insufferable heat making it an inferno; surrounded by desert, rivers, and quick sand; Impossible to endure, more impossible to escape and more.
If you dare, you can even enter into the Dark Cell (their version of solitary confinement)–and it’s definitely pitch black! You can see how dark it is in this photo below where the camera is looking out, even with the doors open. (There are 2 doors that would shut the prisoners in.)
On Tuesdays from 6-7pm, you can go and join the yoga sessions that occur on the guard tower! I think this would be a pretty cool view to practice yoga from! There’s also a nature trail nearby if you want to get in a short walk and hike through the Yuma East Wetlands. According to the website, you can even hold special events there. That could be a great story….”so, we had our wedding at a prison…” I can hear it now and imagine the awkward looks and laughter. Could be fun if you’re the type that likes seeing people try to squirm out of an awkward situation.
If you go, definitely plan some time to stroll through and see everything in addition to making time for the museum so you can read some of the crazy prisoner stories! It’s literally right off of the I-8 (looking at you, Phoenicians that drive to San Diego and only stop in Yuma for gas) and it’s super easy to get to. Although, there’s no gas station super close so you’ll need to get back on the I-8 and stop where you planned to gas up.
I hope you’ll stop by and experience the Yuma Territorial Prison sometime. It’s a neat slice of Arizona history!
Until next time~ keep on keeping’ on!
Jan. 16, 2018: (Post updated to reflect price change).