YUMA, Ariz. – This desert community in the southwest corner of Arizona has the reputation of being one of the hottest places in the country and is surrounded by inhospitable wasteland. Back in the 1800s it made the perfect location for a prison. Today the first prison built in Arizona is now a museum where visitors can experience what it must have been like to be incarcerated in that desolate and forbidding place.
The decision to build a prison in Yuma on the banks of the Colorado River was based on the fact that the local jails in the Arizona Territory were not built well enough and jail breaks were a common occurrence. So on July 1, 1876, the first seven inmates were locked in their cells at the newly constructed Yuma Territorial Prison. Those seven convicts had the dubious distinction of having built the new cells themselves. Over the next 33 years a total of 3,069 prisoners including 29 women lived within the grim walls of the Arizona Territory’s first prison.
Crimes committed by those locked inside ranged from polygamy to murder with the most common offence being larceny. One prisoner, Marcus Polo was given a two year sentence for seduction under the promise of marriage. R.L. McDonald was sent to Yuma Prison for embezzlement. While there he became a bookkeeper for the prisoner’s accounts and ended up stealing $130 from his fellow inmates. Among the women serving time in Yuma Prison probably the most famous was Pearl Hart.
Hart was a tiny 28-year-old, morphine-addicted stagecoach robber whose crimes didn’t quite match with media accounts written about her at the time. The notoriety of being a female bandit appealed to members of the press who greatly embellished her unlawful deeds. The first time she appeared in print was in the 1899 issue of Cosmopolitan Magazine. It seems writers were fascinated by her story and thousands of words were written about her. The truth is she wasn’t very good at her chosen profession. Hart and her partner, Joe Boot held up the stage that was operating between Globe and Florence. The pair got away with about $400 in cash and a handful of valuables such as watches and jewelry. They were found by the local sheriff not long after committing the robbery sleeping under a horse blanket with their guns nearby. Boot surrendered but Hart put up a fight.
Pearl Hart was sent to the jail in Tucson because the one in Florence didn’t have facilities for women. Once in Tucson Hart talked fellow prisoner Ed Hogan into helping her escape. The two were later captured in Deming, New Mexico.
The trials for Hart and Boot were held in Florence. Joe Boot was given a 30-year sentence for his part in the stagecoach robbery while Pearl Hart managed to woo the all male jury into an acquittal. The judge, Fletcher Doan was so incensed at the verdict he had Hart rearrested and charged with stealing the gun from the stagecoach driver for which she received a 5 year sentence in Yuma Territorial Prison.
Even though it was a crude facility by today’s standards Yuma Territorial Prison was known by the residents of the town as “The Country Club on the Colorado River”. But the convicts inside called it a “Hell Hole”. In fact prisoners had many amenities that local townspeople lacked such as a library and hospital. The prison even had electrical power which was something the town lacked. The electrical generator in the prison was used for lights and a ventilation system in the cell block. Prisoners could learn to read and write while incarcerated at the prison. They could even study other languages such as Spanish and German. Music lessons were available and some of the prisoners formed a band.
But in fact it was still a prison where every night six men were jammed into a small cell with only a bucket for a bathroom. Large roaches, lice and bedbugs shared the cells with the prisoners. Inmates had to follow strict rules. Making weapons, fighting, failing to bathe and gambling were prohibited. Anyone who broke the rules could be forced to wear a ball and chain. More serious offenders were sent to the dark cell which was a room carved out of the side of a hill and was only 15 feet by 15 feet with a strap iron cage in the center. The only light came from a small vent in the roof. There was no bedding and only bread and water to eat.
There were 140 attempts to escape Yuma Prison and 26 succeeded. But most prisoners served their time and many received pardons and reduced sentences. There were 111 deaths at the prison and 104 are buried on the prison grounds. The main cause of death was tuberculosis but eight were shot while trying to escape, two were killed by falling rocks, a couple were bitten by rattlesnakes, two more died by suicide and there were also a couple of murders.
By 1909 overcrowding forced the closure of the Yuma Prison and inmates were transferred to a new facility in Florence. About a year later the Yuma High School burned and the school board rented four buildings at the prison for classrooms. The high school operated out of the former prison from 1910 until 1914. The school adopted the moniker of “The Criminals” for their sports teams which was later shortened to “The Crims” and is still in use today. Over the years the prison was used as a homeless shelter and county hospital. In 1924 the Southern Pacific Railroad demolished part of the prison grounds to make room for new tracks and a bridge.
A movement to save the prison from further destruction began in the 1930s when the community of Yuma organized an effort to save the remaining structures. In 1958 the Yuma Territorial Prison became an Arizona State Historic Park.
Today Yuma is a vibrant community with lush green golf courses and a thriving downtown area that includes a historic district. The prison is now a museum where visitors can walk through the cell block and see what life was like for those unfortunate enough to be sentenced there. The museum also has photos and artifacts telling the story of prison life. One corner in the museum has the original setup for taking photos of newly arrived prisoners. Visitors can have their photo taken wearing a striped shirt like the ones worn by inmates in the late 1800s.