Devil's Tale


Yuma Territorial Prison

By Katie Johnson

Although I detest dates, I didn’t want to deny her a “taste of heaven,” as she put it.

It felt like the hottest place in the world. So hot, in fact, that in the summer wings melted off insects. People covered themselves with mud to escape the sting of the burning sun and stood in the river to avoid melting into the ground.

It was well over 100 degrees that day in July 1876 when the first seven inmates entered the Yuma Territorial Prison. After slaving for months in the boiling Arizona sun to build the prison, the exhausted prisoners were escorted to their small cell, shared with six other men, to rest on a hard wooden bunk bed while trying to escape the heat. 

The sun beat down on my back as I peered into the closet-sized cell, with its dirt-covered floor and rickety old ball and chain in the corner. I couldn’t shake the feeling of death and suffering as I glimpsed this fascinating relic of Arizona history.

Shortly before reaching Yuma, my mother, whom I had dragged along for companionship, was excitedly pointing her finger out the window. “Look, Dateland up ahead, 12 miles. I love fresh dates. We’re stopping,” she shouted. Although I detest dates, I didn’t want to deny her “a taste of heaven,” as she put it. 

Courtesy of APWith running water, flush toilets, a sewer system, electricity, and forced-air ventilation, it wasn’t a surprise that locals called the Yuma Territorial Prison “the country club on the Colorado.”

As promised, 12 miles later, there it was: Dateland, home of the date shake. While the thought of a shake made with dates repulsed me, my mother had to have one, so we pulled over. I was surprised to find the restaurant full of thirsty customers, each sucking down a $4.75 date shake. My mother joined them, enjoying her treat. Half an hour later, we got back in the Jeep and headed to Yuma. 

“Yuma Territorial Prison to the left,” the sign read. Finally. We had reached our destination. Now it was time to find out if it was worth the gas money.

Contest winner creates history
In 1875, two Yuma County legislators, José Maria Redondo and R.B. Kelly, thought a prison in Yuma would boost the local economy. Rather than pay an architect to design the prison, they sponsored a contest. The winner received $150, and construction of the new prison began in the winter of 1875.

By modern standards, the Yuma Territorial Prison might be thought of as inhumane, but it was considered a model prison when it was built. With running water pumped from the Colorado River, flush toilets, a sewer system, electricity, and forced-air ventilation, it wasn’t a surprise that locals called it “the country club on the Colorado.” All these amenities were in place by 1893, well before the residents of Yuma had them.

Obsessed with prisons?

Get your fill by watching these famous prison flicks:

1) Shawshank Redemption (1994) A young banker (Tim Robbins) is sentenced to life for the murder of his wife and her lover.

2) Cool Hand Luke (1967) Camp bosses try to tame a hardened inmate (Paul Newman) who refuses to conform to prison life.

3) Escape From Alcatraz (1979) Convicts led by Frank Morris (Clint Eastwood) attempt the first-ever escape from Alcatraz Island.

4) Papillon (1973) Two criminals (Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman) plot their escape from the dreaded prison island.

5) Dead Man Walking (1995) A nun (Susan Sarandon) tries to reconcile her empathetic feelings for both a convicted murderer on death row and the families of his victims.

6) The Rock (1996) A chemist (Nicholas Cage) and an ex-con (Sean Connery) lead a counterstrike when soldiers on Alcatraz threaten San Francisco with nerve gas.

Breaking the rules
My mother and I started our tour by exploring the cell blocks. The granite cells offered little protection from the blazing sun. Each was lined with six steel bunks—three on the left and three on the right. As sweat poured down my back, I couldn’t imagine enduring this life day after day. 

Old and new graffiti covered many of the cells. Some of the initials had been carved by prisoners, others by recent visitors.

The library room stood empty, and only a few rusted wheelbarrows were perched in the corner of the tool shed. The New Yard was an expanse of open desert where the prisoners relaxed during their free time.

Inmates who broke prison rules against fighting or having a weapon ended up in the infamous Dark Cell. Nicknamed the Snake Den, it was carved into the caliche hillside. A prisoner locked in this tiny cage was stripped to his undergarments. He had no light and was given only bread and water once a day. It was said that guards dropped snakes and scorpions down the ventilation shaft onto the prisoner. 

For lesser crimes, such as trying to escape, prisoners were chained to a ring in the prison floor or had a ball and chain fastened to their ankle. 

At night, everyone suffered from a severe infestation of bed bugs. The wooden bunks were eventually torn out and replaced with iron beds. The prisoners added hay for comfort.

Deadly disease takes its toll
More than 3,000 convicts spent time at the Yuma Territorial Prison during its 33-year history. They ranged in age from 14 to 88 and represented many ethnic groups. The crimes committed were much the same as those common today, with the exception of “selling liquor to Indians, obstructing the railroad, and seduction.”

Of the 3,069 prisoners, 29 were women, whom the prison began incarcerating in November 1878. One hundred eleven prisoners died at the prison, mostly from tuberculosis, which was common throughout the Arizona Territory. Of the many attempted escapes, only 26 were successful. 

With the river embracing both sides of the prison, the prison couldn’t expand. When the new prison in Florence was finished in 1909, the Yuma convicts were moved there. 

The Yuma Territorial Prison stood abandoned for many years. The townspeople started dismantling it for building materials, rocks, and iron. During World War II, the Civil Defense used the main guard tower as an observation post. Later, the site served as a backdrop in Western films starring John Wayne and Gene Autry. In 1960, the prison was donated to the Arizona state park system. 

A dozen famous prisons

1) Attica, New York

2) Sing Sing, New York

3) Rikers Island, New York

4) Leavenworth, Kansas

5) San Quentin, California

6) Alcatraz, San Francisco

7) Folsom, California

8) McNeil Island, Washington State

9) Chateau d'lf, France

10) Devil's Island, French Guiana

11) Tower of London

12) Lubyanka, Moscow

A piece of history

After exploring the cells, we headed to the museum. On display were interesting relics from the prison’s past, including old typewriters, playing cards, and medicine bottles. 

Ranger Linda Offeney was telling tourists about mysterious occurrences at the prison. “I have felt eerie things here, especially at night in the cells,” she said. “Things mysteriously move on their own, disappear completely. The cash register in the gift shop opens and closes on its own from time to time.”

Across the parking lot, I saw the lonely rock piles that mark the graves of the 111 prisoners who died at here. With their souls resting so close to where they endured miserable conditions, it’s no surprise the prison is rumored to be haunted.

Beads of sweat were now dripping into my eyes, and I realized it was time to go. As we headed back to Phoenix, the small granite cells with steel bunks and dirt floors left an indelible impression of what prison life was like in early Arizona. Definitely no date shakes, which I had a sneaking suspicion might be in store on the drive home.



Yuma Territorial Prison

Getting there
Follow Interstate 8 west to Yuma. Take Exit 1 (Giss Parkway) toward Yuma, then turn right onto Prison Hill Road. The prison is located at 1 Prison Hill Road, Yuma, AZ 85364. 

Daily 8 a.m.–5 p.m., Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Eve 8 a.m.–2 p.m., Christmas Day closed. 

For current information, please call 928.783.4771.


Back to top