Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Yuma Territorial Prison

Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry were fortunate they didn’t face the prospect of serving twenty years in the Yuma Territorial Prison.  Known as the “Hell Hole” by the inmates, the prison opened in 1876 and closed in 1909 when overcrowding became too severe, so it was in operation at almost the same time as the Wyoming Territorial Prison in Laramie, which I described in a blog entry in July 2011. 
Built by convicts on a hill just outside the city of Yuma, the prison was surrounded on two sides by the Colorado River, which made escapes difficult though not impossible.  Today, the Yuma Territorial Prison is an Arizona State Park (see photo above) and is open year round; though tours are not offered in the summer, the park rangers, called customer service representatives, are very knowledgeable and happy to answer questions from visitors.

Perhaps the most famous prisoners held at the Yuma Territorial Prison were “Buckskin” Frank Leslie and Pearl Hart; both have displays in the site's museum.  Leslie was a gunman infamous in Tombstone and was sentenced to twenty-five years for murdering a prostitute there.  He arrived at the prison in 1890 but was pardoned—a common occurrence back then—six or eight years later (records differ as to when exactly he was released).  Hart was an erstwhile stagecoach robber who initially was found not guilty at her trial but the judge convened another jury that convicted her and she was sentenced to five years.  In its thirty-three year history, the Yuma Territorial Prison housed 3,069 inmates, of which 29 were women.

When a convict first arrived, he or she entered the prison through the sally port, (see two photos at right and below: the top shows the original adobe structure and small white-painted guard post next to it; the photo below shows the view through the sally port looking out towards the Colorado River).   The convict was photographed and vital statistics were noted; using a mirror with a cut-out section on the bottom, the photographer was able to simultaneously take a photo that captured a full and profile view of the person.  This mirror is on display in the museum and visitors can don a black-and-white striped shirt, made of heavy cotton by Levi Strauss’ company, and try it out for themselves.

A display reveals that most of the prisoners were between 21 – 30 years old, although the youngest was 14 and the oldest 88.  Not surprisingly, at least half were single, although the marital status of one-quarter was unknown.  The vast majority used some form of tobacco, which was allowed in the prison, but the inmates had to supply it themselves. 
Most of the prisoners were either Anglo or Mexican; much smaller numbers were Native American or African-American.  Over 1,300  prisoners identified themselves as Catholic and slightly more than 500 as Protestant; only three prisoners were Jewish and just one was Buddhist; however, the religion of approximately sixty percent of the remaining inmates was unknown.  Interestingly, at least half of the prisoners were literate, although the literacy level of an additional one-quarter of the convicts was not known.
Prisoners were housed six to a cell, with ten cells in a row facing ten other cells across a narrow passageway that was barred at both ends with a metal gate (see four photos at right and below).  This is what remains of the cellblock today and what visitors see.  Behind each of those rows of cells were additional cells.  Original strap-iron doors have been preserved (unlike the doors at the Wyoming Territorial Prison).
Each cell was furnished with bunk beds—originally made of wood but when the bedbug problem became too great, iron bunks were used instead—a chamber pot, and an iron ring bolted to the floor that was used for punishment by chaining an inmate to it.  Prisoners had their heads shaved weekly (though not the women, as far as I can tell from photographs of them) and bathed at least once a week.  Prisoners were required to work and, in fact, were able to learn a trade while incarcerated at the Yuma Territorial Prison. Female inmates were housed in a separate section of the prison.

The law-abiding citizens of Yuma referred to the prison as the “Country Club on the Colorado” because it had amenities they themselves did not.  For example, starting in 1885 there was electricity, and the surplus was sold to the town; there was also running water that was pumped into a reservoir on the prison grounds from the Colorado River; forced ventilation; and a hospital which not only provided medical but also dental care.  The hospital was constructed over one of the cell blocks and a doctor was on call.
For twenty-five cents, townspeople could visit the prison; this fee went towards the purchase of books for the prison library, which was the largest in Arizona with 1500 – 2000 volumes (accounts differ).  In its time, the prison was considered a model penitentiary.  I was not able to find out if the Auburn System was in effect here, though.

Several buildings from the era of the Yuma Territorial Prison no longer exist.  They include the hospital, the dining hall for prisoners, the superintendent’s house, the building where the guards lived, and the women’s cells.  However, when the prison began to become overcrowded, a new cell block was built and visitors can still see that.

Another part of the prison that can be visited is the Dark Cell.  Unlike the one at the Wyoming Territorial Prison, which was located in the same building with the other cells, the Dark Cell at the Yuma Territorial Prison was located in a separate section.  It can be seen behind the iron gate in the sixth photo from the top of this blog entry.  The Dark Cell was reached through a short, dark passageway (see photo above).
I visited the prison the day after a very heavy monsoon thunderstorm and the entrance was flooded so it was not possible for me to actually go inside and see the place.  But I was told that it was an iron cage and the only light was from a small vent in the roof.  Prisoners wore only their undergarments while there and were fed a meal of bread and water once a day.  There was no bedding, not even a chamber pot.  If wearing a ball and chain or being confined to solitary—a separate row of five cells--was not a severe enough punishment, inmates were sent to the Dark Cell.  There was a punishment even worse than the Dark Cell—the Incorrigible Ward, which consisted of five small cells behind the main cell block (see the foundation of the Incorrigible Ward at the center right of the photo below).
There were many escape attempts but only a few were successful.  Convicts who died while serving time were buried in the prison cemetery, located partway down the hill.  There are no markers, only heaps of stones now, to indicate the graves but a plaque explains that 104 prisoners are buried there and it lists their names.

A museum, built where the dining hall used to be, contains very interesting exhibits about the history of the prison and the prisoners who spent time there; it definitely should not be missed.  The building at the entrance to the park also serves as the gift shop and contains a few books about the prison as well as many others about Arizona; there are also lots of other prison-oriented souvenirs available for purchase.While I enjoyed my time immensely at the Yuma Territorial Prison, I am sure that Kid Curry and Hannibal Heyes would have had a completely different perspective had they ever been incarcerated there.

Official website for the Yuma Territorial Prison:

A short history of the Yuma Territorial Prison: