Haunted Yuma Territorial Prison
The Yuma Territorial Prison in Arizona, contrary to its notorious image, was actually one of the country’s better penal facilities of its day despite being called “Devil’s Island” or “Hell Hole.” In fact, some even called it "the Country Club on the Colorado" because it had running water, toilets and electricity.
Perhaps the descriptive names evolved from the prison’s location. It was situated in the middle of nowhere and conditions were exceedingly hot and dry. Inmates undoubtedly suffered in the small cells with no air circulation.
But on the other hand, there was a medical facility and a library where classes were held to teach the illiterate to read and write. Records indicate prisoners were also allowed to make hand-crafted items they could sell following Sunday church services. So for the times,except for the weather, prisoners were treated relatively well.
Although no executions took place at the facility, over 100 did die there, many from a tuberculosis epidemic that ravaged the inmate population. Others died from accidents in the rock quarry, suicide, being shot in escape attempts or killed by other inmates. Most are buried in the prison cemetery. Only one was female.
The Yuma Territorial Prison officially opened on July, 1, 1876 with the introduction of 7 inmates who had participated in building the very structure in which they were being imprisoned. The Prison served the state for 33 years during which it housed over 3,000 prisoners, 29 being women.
The story is told of one prisoner being taken by train to serve his sentence at Yuma. In an escape attempt he died jumping from the moving train. He is also buried in the prison cemetery.
However, by 1907 the prison was becoming overcrowded and in 1909 it was shut down because it was just too small, to hold the burgeoning population. The last prisoner was transferred out on September 15th to the new Arizona State Prison Complex at Florence. But apparently a few of the inmates decided to keep the prison as their permanent residence.
There are two places in the old prison where playful spirits have reportedly been encountered. One is the museum where its’ been said an unseen entity has a penchant for playing with dimes. The other is a place referred to as “the dark cell,” where prisoners were placed in solitary confinement. A spirit there seems to be fond of pinching folks, especially children.
In 1910 the Yuma Union High School began holding classes there which continued until 1914. However, in the 1920s the railroad rerouted its main line resulting in the destruction of about half of the prison. It was also during the Great Depression and the homeless found refuge there.
Unfortunately, other hard hit families of the depression saw the structure as a good source of recycled building materials. Local citizens fought to preserve it as a city museum and it later became a state park.
Recently the prison was the target of state budget deficits. Again Yuma’s citizenry came to its’ rescue raising funds to keep it open. Today, the park sponsors many annual events such as the Gathering of the Gunfighters and other various attractions.
For more information on these and tour schedules visit: www.pr.state.az.us/parks/yute/index.html
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