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Monday, May 21, 2018

Yuma Territorial Prison-HELLHOLE OF THE WEST

In its 33 years of operation, Arizona's first Territorial Prison, built in 1876 on the banks of the Colorado River and not too far north of Mexico, housed over 3, 069 prisoners, 29 of them women.

Often called the “Hellhole of the West”, in reality the prison was a modern facility for its time with electricity, flush toilets and excellent medical care. The nickname, “Hellhole of the West,” may have been coined because of the extreme heat during the summer, or because of the infamous solitary “dark cell.”

The original fence around the prison was made of wood. To discourage escape a massive 18 foot high Adobe wall was constructed in the 1880s. At ground level the wall was 8 feet thick, and 5 feet across at the top. A whitewash mixture of blue clay, linseed oil, and other chemicals protected the Adobe bricks.

Guards crossed a catwalk to reach the wall. There they monitored prisoners in the East yard inside the prison, and those making Adobe bricks in the outside yard. They had a view of movement in and out of the wood shop, Taylor and shoemaker's shop, laundry facility, bath house, library, and the electric plant.

The main cell block was built to house up to 204 prisoners, but at times the superintendent's report stated that up to her 240 prisoners were kept there.

Each cell was approximately 9 ft by 12 ft and could hold six prisoners. When space became limited, the more trusted prisoners would sleep in the hallways. Cells were constructed of scrap iron and granite rock, which was plastered and whitewashed.

The iron was shipped in from California via steamboat, but the granite was carried by prisoners on site. Originally the cell block was completely enclosed and not exposed to the elements as it appears today. One of the earliest electrical generating plants in the west furnished power for lights and a ventilation system in the cell block.

As the number of prisoners increased, and the buildings were remodeled, the superintendent's office was moved outside the Prison Walls. The Adobe building also held the supply store or commissary. Because it was directly across from the main gate or sally port, a Guard Station was built on the roof.

Yuma Territorial Prison Office (L) and Guards' Housing (R)
A two-story 10 room adobe building served as the guards’ quarters. Single guards had rooms on the first floor, but the assistant superintendent and his family had the second-floor to themselves. Notice the catwalk which was extended from the second floor to the guard shack on top of the superintendent's office.

Yuma Territorial Prison Stables-The State Park office now occupies this spot.
The stables were to the north. Horses were used to pull wagons of adobe bricks, granite blocks, wood, supplies, and people, and may also have provided recreational writing for employees and families. After the prison's closing, the stables became the municipal stables.

Sallyport leading into prison cell block
Prison superintendent was an appointed position often given as a political favor. The pay was a substantial sum for the time, $250 per month plus a residence. A cozy house was built in 1883 on the northwest corner, surrounded by lawn and white picket fence. Since Yuma was still a frontier town, furniture and home improvement materials materials we're not easily purchased there. Any improvements desired by a superintendent were done with inmate labor in prison shops, and that's provided an opportunity for training prisoners new skills. This included landscaping, making furniture, and remodeling.

Because it was such a nice house, this house probably became a teacher's residence while the High School located here in 1910 to 1914 next it was converted to Yuma's County's first community hospital. In 1923 it was demolished to make way for the new railroad bridge.

Yuma of the 1870s had limited marketplace opportunities. Goods were brought in by steamships or many days journey through hostile country. Calamities along the journey claimed belongings and supplies more than once. The government compensated by stocking as many provisions as possible. Offices, commissary, and housing for employees and livestock were close by.

The shops were in example of the self-sufficiency of the prison. Not only did prisoners produce items needed here, but also were trained in skills necessary to become productive citizens. Electric wires were strung along the wall. The electricity was fueled by an electric dynamo which was quite modern for the 1880's. The system was so efficient that after 9 p.m. electricity was sold to the City of Yuma. (See the string of electric light bulbs in the top banner.)

Strapiron over the skylight in the sallyport
As an inmate, 48 hours a week where spent working in the fields, quarry, adobe yard, or on assignment in a shop. Whether you needed a tin cup or a new mattress; designed silver spurs or carved wooden table legs, there was a shop equipped for producing the item. There were two shop buildings inside the prison, both are now gone. Each had several workshops, all different. Out of the tailor and shoe shop came garments to wear. A bakery oven yielded breads and desserts. The rehabilitation program of that time consisted of the more knowledgeable teaching those who wanted to learn

In 1902, a hospital was constructed on top of the main cell block. This well-supplied facility contained a dispensary, a doctor's office, operating room, attendance room, bathroom with flushing toilets, and a consumptive ward. It wasn't uncommon for prisoners from the other institutions to be sent to the Territorial Prison at Yuma to recuperate their health.

By 1907, the prison was severely overcrowded and was no more room to expand on Prison Hill. A new Arizona Territorial prison was built in Florence. After the last few prisoners were transferred 1909, the Yuma Territorial Prison ceased operations.

(The photos are mine, but many of them were taken of display materials at the Yuma Territorial Prison State Park. Most of the information in this blog post comes from the same source. These photos and this blog post do not do this historical site justice. If you are visiting the Southwest, consider taking time to visit and explore the Yuma Territorial Prison.)

Anyone who has not yet read my Eastern Sierra Brides 1884 series which takes place just on the other side of the Sierra Nevada mountains from Columbia and Sonora, you may enjoy my first two books in the Eastern Sierra Brides 1884 series. You may find the first book in the series, Big Meadow Valentine, by CLICKING HERE, and the second book, A Resurrected Heart, by CLICKING HERE.

The third book, Her Independent Spirit, touches on Independence Day, 1884. More importantly, it touches on the efforts of two women in the gold mining town of Lundy to declare their own independence from their current circumstances. It also includes an event in Lundy’s history that changed the dynamics of the town from that point forward. You may find this book by CLICKING HERE.


  1. Fascinating! Lots and lots of history for us to get our teeth into here. It must have been a horrible life there. The mug shot are especially interesting to me a they give a glimpse of the humanity behind the stories.

  2. Thanks for adding to my knowledge of prisons in the Old West. You know how fascinated I am with the subject and thanks for the photos. Doris

  3. Great post. I was shocked to learn about the electricity and the other more 'modern' things in the place. Would love to tour this place.

  4. Robyn,

    Yuma Prison was certainly progressive. I had no idea. Still, 6 people per a 9' x 12' room gives me the willies. That would make the entire horrible prison experience even worse for me. Wow. 0_o

  5. Robyn,
    Thanks for this informative post. I really need to get down to Yuma and visit this site. I definitely want to use it in a future book.

  6. As far as prisons go, the Yuma Prison sounds idealic. I wouldn't have imagined such a place would exist back then. Conditions in modern prisons may not actually be this good--except the "dark cell". Then again, today's solitary confinement might be even "darker." I am truly taken aback by the extraordinary conveniences of the Yuma prison.
    This was great information, Zina.

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