If you ever wanted to know what it was like to be in prison during the Old West, then you need only go to Yuma, Arizona. The Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park is located at 1 Prison Hill Road in Yuma, Arizona. The park includes the Territorial Prison, built in 1876, which includes the cells, the guard tower and main gate, the museum, gift shop, and video room, as well as restrooms and picnic areas. The museum provides a fascinating look at this slice of history, with artifacts and information on former inmates and staff. In addition to the museum and the remaining buildings, the former Prison Hill offers great views and a variety of places to enjoy a picnic with friends and family.
The first prisoners actually built their own cells, and on July 1, 1876, those seven inmates were locked in those cells. Over 3,000 prisoners were inmates there during the time of the prison, with at least 29 of those prisoners being women. One hundred eleven prisoners died during their stay, mostly due to tuberculosis, which was a common disease in the area. Twenty-six inmates actually escaped from the prison, but those that were unsuccessful ended up with the dreaded ball and chain to discourage further escape attempts. No executions ever took place at the prison. Inmates usually only served a small portion of their actual sentence because pardons were easy to get.
The prison was actually quite a modern institution, and many inmates learned to read and write during their stays. The institution had one of the first public libraries, and prisoners got medical attention while there. The facility was in use until 1907, when overcrowding became an issue. By 1909, all the inmates had been transferred to other facilities, and the buildings were used as a school, free lodging for hobos and families left homeless by the Great Depression, etc. Local Yuma townspeople also saw the prison as a free source of building materials, which is why most of the prison structures are now gone.
The Yuma Union High School occupied the buildings from 1910 to 1914. Empty cells provided free lodging for hobos riding the freights in the 20′s and sheltered many homeless families during the Depression. Townspeople considered the complex a source for free building materials. This, plus fires, weathering, and railroad construction, destroyed the prison walls and all buildings except the cells, main gate, and guard tower, but these provide a glimpse of convict life a century ago.
The Yuma Territorial State Historical Park hosts several special events throughout the year. These include the Gathering of the Gunfighters in January to Haunted Tours of the facility in October, and Old West reenactments are done every Sunday from October through April. These events make the Territorial Prison an entertaining option for visitors to the Yuma area no matter what time of the year they visit.
The park is open every day from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. except for Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, when the park closes at 2:00 p.m. and the park is not open on Christmas Day. No overnight camping is allowed on the premises. Water and vending machines are available. Admission to the Yuma Territorial Prison State Historical Park is free for those under the age of 13, and just $4 for those over the age of fourteen. No pets are allowed in the park. Group rates are available. To find out more, call 928-783-4771.
- Hours: Open daily 8 – 5. Closed at 2 on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve. Closed Christmas Day.
- Location: 1 Prison Hill Rd, Yuma, Arizona 85364
- Phone: 928-783-4771
- Directions: Take I-8 to Yuma, take exit 1 to Giss Parkway, Turn at Prison Hill Rd.