Old Territorial Prison Offers a Sense of Yuma
A sparrow comes to rest in the grid of scrap iron that makes up the cell door. After a quick look, the bird flies off toward the Gila River that winds around the base of Prison Hill.
In another era the inmates of notorious Yuma Territorial Prison no doubt also saw birds coming and going, and were envious of their freedom.
When the prison was in use, a guard stood watch at the main tower with a four-barrel Lowell battery gun (successor to the famed Gatling), surveying the restricted terrain of the prison yards and cell blocks below.
He was able to fire a withering 600 rounds a minute. On top of the 16-by-18-foot stone and adobe walls other guards, armed with Winchester rifles and Parker shotguns, patrolled a five-foot-wide pathway.
Despite this security, 26 men escaped and were never caught.
The remains of the old Yuma prison still stand at the confluence of the Gila and Colorado rivers in the old town section of Yuma. The prison is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (except Christmas). Admission is $2 for visitors 18 years and older; those 17 and under are admitted free.
A Stroll Back in Time
The drive to the top of Prison Hill and tour of the prison, which is now a state historic park, is like a stroll back in time.
Upon entering the museum you’ll see firearms, balls and chains, leg irons, mug shots, historical photos and other prison memorabilia. Then you enter the interior to the cell blocks, narrow 4-by-8-foot cubicles that each held six convicts.
At the south end of this cell block is the “dark cell,” a scrap-iron cage inside a 15-by-15-foot cave dug into the hillside, where it was always isolated and dark.
Between 1876 and 1909, prisoners were brought in a steamboat on the Colorado River from the Sea of Cortez to a pier at the base of the hill. They were marched up and ushered through the “sallyport” (main gate) and into an interrogation room.
Life on the Inside
Afterward, their heads were shaved (men, not women), pictures taken, a prison uniform issued (black and gray, or black and yellow stripes) and they were given a few items such as underwear, shoes, socks--maybe a toothpick if that was their preference.
Finally, they were assigned to a cell.
During the processing they were told of the punishments for rule infractions. These included: four to 22 days in solitary, plus up to 43 extra days attached to a ball and chain if escape was attempted; seven days in solitary for being intoxicated on bay rum; two days in solitary for not bathing; three months in the incorrigible ward for writing obscene or threatening letters and, interestingly, only a single day in solitary if a knife was manufactured.
People were sent to Yuma prison for the usual assortment of major crimes. But 164 inmates also served time here for selling liquor to Indians, 11 for polygamy, four for obstructing a railroad, three for seduction and one for prizefighting. The youngest inmate was 14, the oldest 88.
There were 29 women prisoners. Pearl Hart was the best known. A would-be actress, young and pretty, she was a well-established train and stagecoach robber. Her Colt .45 is on display.
Elena Estrada was here, too. She murdered her boyfriend for his infidelity, then cut his heart out. But she was pardoned after serving a short time.
The men included “Buckskin” Frank Leslie, maybe the most notorious of the Yuma convicts, who served whiskey to Wyatt and Frank Earp in Tombstone when he worked as a bartender.
He killed Molly Bradshaw, a “scarlet woman.” Ironically, he was a model prisoner, and served only seven years.
Three-fingered Jack Laustenneau was here too. He was an intellectual type, given to rabble-rousing and the organization of resistance.
Sentenced repeatedly to the “dark cell,” he died from the debilitating effects of venereal disease, among other maladies.
At Yuma 3,069 prisoners served a total of 4,747 years behind the eight-foot-thick walls.
A Bleak Place
It’s a bleak and forbidding place, far smaller than the huge prisons of today, with stark adobe and stone walls.
Summer temperatures often soared over the 115-degree mark. Inmates also had to deal with cockroaches, black widow spiders, scorpions and persistent bedbugs (prison officials finally switched from wooden to metal beds after a bedbug problem got out of hand).
The pulp magazines and “yellow” newspapers popularized Yuma as a hellhole rivaling Devil’s Island.
Mostly they painted a false picture. It was no worse than other prisons of that time. In some ways, it was better. It had the first electrical generator, which was eventually used to drive blowers that circulated air through the cell blocks at night.
It had one of the first prison libraries, which was so well stocked that it was used by Yuma citizens as well as convicts.
It had an education program, too, where many an inmate learned to read and write.
Though the convicted received long sentences, pardons were the rule rather than the exception, with most inmates serving far less than full terms.
Yuma is just east of the California-Arizona border on Interstate 8. Follow signs to the prison in the downtown area or by exiting I-8 at Giss Parkway, turning east, then north on Prison Hill Road.
For more information on the prison: P.O. Box 792, Yuma, Ariz. 85364., (602) 783-4771.
There is no shortage of lodgings in the Yuma area, with Best Western, TraveLodge, Ramada, Rodeway and Holiday Inn offering rooms for about $40 to $55 for two.