Cross under an imposing entryway and onto the grounds of the infamous Yuma territorial prison with the comfort of knowing you’ll be allowed to leave whenever you want to! As notorious as the prison’s reputation was, inmates were actually treated humanely and the prison was a model institution for its time. Nevertheless, the strap iron cells and solitary chamber can evoke chilly feelings of isolation and abandonment, much as they did for the 3,069 inmates who were housed here over the prison’s 33 years in use.
As Yuma flourished with the bustle of westward immigration to the California gold fields, the territory’s crime rate also surged. In 1875, the Eighth Territorial Legislature deemed a prison necessary and, thanks to political shenanigans, Yuma was chosen for the $25,000 project. The first seven inmates moved into the facility on July 1, 1876. The prison closed due to overcrowding and all inmates were moved to a new prison in Florence in 1909. Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park was opened and dedicated on Jan. 1, 1961. A myth that nobody escaped from the prison is untrue – 26 successfully escaped. But the story that a local high school’s nickname is The Criminals because of the prison is true – because classes were held for a short time in the closed prison while the burned-down school was rebuilt.
You might think convicts were sent to Yuma to bake in the summer heat, but, thanks to the prison’s thick adobe walls, conditions weren’t that bad – considering it was still incarceration. The most extreme punishment was banishment to the Dark Cell, which still stands for those who dare to enter. Explore an original cellblock, where six inmates were housed in each cell.
Perhaps the most famous criminal housed here was Pearl Hart, the “Bandit Queen” stagecoach robber. The youngest inmate was 14 and the oldest 88. The crimes that sent inmates here ranged from murder to polygamy, though grand larceny was the most common crime.
Climb up the reconstructed guard tower, with 360-degree views of Yuma. From the nearby View Deck, see the Colorado River, granite outcroppings that form the Yuma Crossing, old Fort Yuma, the Union Pacific railroad bridge, and the 1915 Ocean-to-Ocean Highway bridge.
The prison’s 3,600-square-foot Museum includes a video presentation and original prison artifacts. Get fun prison-related T-shirts, caps, keychains, handcuffs (if you’re flying, you probably shouldn’t put these in your carry-on bags), and books in the gift shop.
There are accommodations for every budget in Yuma, from more than 23,000 RV spots to nearly 4,000 hotel rooms. Overnight camping is permitted at Kofa National Wildlife Refuge and areas administered by the Bureau of Land Management.
Open daily, 9:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
June 1 – Sept. 30: Closed Tuesdays – Wednesdays.
Yuma Territorial Prison
220 N. Prison Hill Road
Yuma, AZ 85364