Yuma Territorial Prison... So Cool!

While the thought of a prison isn't so cool, the history here was incredibly interesting.

The Yuma Territorial Prison operated for 33 years from 1876 to 1909. It was established mainly because all the county jails in the territory were very, very unsafe. It was easy for people to break out. There were more than 3,000 inmates, ranging in age from 14 to 88; a cross-section of who ever came to or through the Territory. Their crimes ranged from adultery, theft, polygamy and even to (my favorite) seduction with the promise of marriage.
The prison opened its doors on July 1, 1876. Its first seven inmates were the prisoners who built it. Constructed on and into a hard rock cliff, at the conjunction of the Gila and Colorado Rivers , the budding town of Yuma lay to the west and miles of barren, harsh desert to the south. A perfect location for a prison. The Yuma Territorial Prison was known by the local people in town as the Country Club on the Colorado River, and yet the convicts referred to it as a hellhole. By 1885, it had electricity and blowers that blew air into the east cell block area. They had a hospital, complete with dental care. The prisoners were taught reading, writing, arithmetic, Spanish, German, and music. And they even formed a band.
But once they were locked up in the evenings, there were six men to a cell, and one bucket that was their toilet. In addition, they lived with large sewer roaches, lice, bedbugs and all manner of dangerous reptiles. Definitely a hellhole not a Country Club.
That said, the prison had an unheard of progressive operating philosophy for the time, best stated by Superintendent Thomas Gates. "It is and has ever been my object to elevate rather than depress the men who have been thrown under my supervision, to inspire them with renewed hope and revive the tottering principles of true manhood. To this end, I have granted every liberty consistent with good prison government: privileges."

After a thorough and interesting guided tour of what's left of the prison, we explored the museum. Through its informational video and really well presented exhibit cases, we were even more amazed by this historic location.
I admired one superintendent's wife, Madora Ingalls, who worked to improve conditions and educational opportunities, and even set up a 2,000 book library.
There were 29 women sentenced to Yuma , including 16-year-old Maria Moreno, who shot her brother after he complained about the way she was dancing. They were kept separate from the men but their crimes were just as manly.
Of the 3,000 inmates, 111 died here with 104 of them being buried in the prison cemetery. The main cause of death was consumption (tuberculosis). Eight inmates were shot while trying to escape, two were killed by falling rocks, several committed suicide (including one superintendent) and a couple were bitten by rattlesnakes. Yikes.

By 1909, overcrowding at the prison forced its closure. The institution was closed, but its history was far from over. Over the decades, it would serve as the local high school, shelter for homeless during the depression, and even movie locations. Floods, theft, railroad expansion, and the building of the Ocean-to-Ocean highway (Route 8) destroyed sections of the prison. In 1939, some townspeople took notice and in 1941 a museum was opened and the rest is history!
And this is where we are camping for our first night, back in California. What a lovely spot on the shore of Lake Cuyamaca. We'll spend the next week in SoCal making connections with family and friends until we return to Lake Tahoe- three months and three days after we left. What a road trip!

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Cyndy Brown said...

Bet that prison had some awful smells! How did they manage in the heat????
Welcome back to CA...can't wait to see you both after you return.

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