Territorial State Prison is a Must-See in Yuma, Arizona

The sunniest and the hottest city located in Yuma Arizona has some unusual things to offer. The Territorial State Prison is one of them that no one should skip. The prison is famous as the “Alcatraz of the Desert” is sitting on a bluff overlooking the beautiful Colorado River and the Ocean-to-Ocean Bridge symbolizing the pride of a bygone era of Yuma.

Built in 1876 which housed 3069 prisoners during its 33 years of existence, including 29 women who were convicted for various crimes. It housed murderers, thieves, bank robbers, adulteries, and polygamists to name a few. It is often called the “Hell Hole of the West” because of the sweltering summer temperatures which rise to 120 degrees and or the infamous solitary “Dark Cell”. It was equipped with all the amenities including a library with 2000 books, more books than most libraries at the time. The prison was still considered humane because of all the amenities the superintendents offered to prisoners.


By 1907, the prison was severely overcrowded with no room for expansion insight. A new prison was built in the town of Florence causing the closure of the Territorial prison in Yuma. Most of the prisoners were transferred to Florence.

The Hell Hole

Prisoners feared and abhorred this territorial prison because of its insufferable heat and often compared it to an inferno surrounded by rivers, quicksand, and the desert in all directions. Escaping was not an option even though there were few unsuccessful attempts. The sentences were inhuman with an iron ball and a chain as standard punishment. Consumption also known as tuberculosis was the number one killer amongst the prisoners. All those circumstances made it harder to survive, few prisoners committed suicide over life in the prison.

Crimes, Crimes, And Crimes

There were 1287 burglaries, assaults manslaughters riots 473, forgery frauds 249, murders 217, manslaughters 170, selling liquor to Indians 164, robbery 143, rape 42, adultery 27, polygamy 11, obstruction railroad 4, deduction 3, and 278 other offenses. One hanging took place when a prisoner killed another inmate which was the only execution that took place within the prison.

Famous Male Prisoners

B. F. Leslie – The Fast Gun – who worked for Wyatt Earp at the oriented bar in Tombstone, Arizona. He was sentenced to the killing of his girlfriend in a drunken rage.

The Bookkeeper – McDonald- who was a Phoenix school superintendent sentenced to prison for crimes of forgery. Impressed with his credentials, he was hired by the prison officials to manage prisoners’ wages. Once he was released, officials found out that he walked off with $130 of prisoners’ money. The prison didn’t help him to rehabilitate.

Riggs Barney – Hero of the Gates Riots – was sentenced to prison for killing a man who was involved with his wife. He was released due to his heroism by saving the prison superintendent Gates from certain death during the Gates Riots.

Magoon Ricardo – Mexican revolutionary – who was sentenced to prison for violating the Mexican Neutrality Act

William Flake – Mormon Prisoner – who was arrested for unlawful plural marriage. Many fled to Mexico to avoid persecution, flake challenged the Edmond’s act calling it a mockery, a travesty on justice.” He served six months in prison.

Famous Women in Prison

Heart Breaker  Elena Estrada, was sentenced to prison for seven years for manslaughter when she stabbed her unfaithful lover then cut open his chest, pulled out his heart, and threw the bloody mass into his face. Some would say it was a crime of passion.

Shotgun Sister  Mario Moreno at the age of fifteen was sentenced to prison for killing a man. She didn’t like the way her sister of sixteen-years-old danced and asked her to stop. She threatened to kill him. Alfred said, “go ahead and kill me!” she took her shotgun and shot him in the face by killing him instantaneously.

Bandit Queen  Pearl Hart– robbed Globe to Florence stagecoach with Joe Boot. She was sentenced to prison for 5 years. She used her feminine wiles with both prisoners and guards-like to survive. She was pardoned after 3 years.

The Prison

It is constructed of strap iron doors and the walls were made of two-foot-thick adobe walls studded with pieces of metal and granites to deter “digging” out of the cell. The heat during the summer is unbearable, prisoners were out all day working and building the parts of prison instead of being inside the cells. The “dark cell” (solitary confinement) was even harder to live in because prisoners had on only underpants and lived inside a small metal shell. The only light and air were a small hole in the ceiling, and they were forced to defecate in the cell where they lived. It was never cleaned and was always infested with rats.

Yuma Territorial Prison

The guards only opened the door once a day to deliver one daily meal of bread and water. Usually, a few days was enough of a punishment, but many had to endure up to 100 days in solitary confinement. If more than one prisoner was in solitary, then they were forced to share the same small cell.

Prison cells are unbearably hot in the summer

This was one of the most unrelenting punishments in the harshest environment prisoners had to live in. This is why it was easy to imagine Russel Crowe felt a shiver and wished not to end up in the Yuma prison of the movie 3:10 to Yuma.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *