One of the most famous prisons from the days of the Old West is the Yuma Territorial Prison. The prison was in operation from 1876 until 1909. It is no longer in use, of course, but remains as a famous part of western history and can still be toured today.
The prison itself held a contradictory image at the time, depending on whether you were a citizen of Yuma or an inmate of the prison. Those two views differed greatly, as you might expect. The prison actually contained a number of amenities that weren’t to be found in other prisons at the time, including electricity, a ventilation system and a library. It was said to be humanely administered, in comparison to some other prisons. Citizens of Yuma at the time could be heard complaining that the inmates were living the good life with the ventilation system, library, and even a prison band!
Inmates of the prison, however, referred to it as the “hell hole”. Living in the adobe and brick cells with temperatures in the desert of up to 120 degrees made it a feared and dreaded place for those sentenced to live there. Escape was very difficult and extremely rare, due to the desert on three sides and the Colorado River on the other. Rule breakers were punished with a ball and chain, or even worse, ten days in the dark cell.
The dark cell was a ten by ten room with no bed, blankets, or any kind of sanitation. Inmates were shackled to the floor. It was often called the “Snake Den”, because it could sometimes be paid an unexpected visit by scorpions or rattlesnakes. Ten days was about the limit that anyone seemed to be able to stay there and retain sanity.
Among the famous inhabitants of the Territorial Prison were gunfighter “Buckskin” Frank Leslie, who worked for Wyatt Earp at the Oriental Bar in Tombstone, and Pearl Hart, a stagecoach robber nicknamed the “Bandit Queen”. She was one of 29 female prisoners in the history of the institution. In total, more than three thousand prisoners were housed there.
Ironically, after the prison was closed and the prisoners transferred to a new facility in 1909, the Yuma Union High School held classes there for five years!