Much is written about the saga of the Old West. From Deadwood, SD to Dodge City, KS, to Tombstone, AZ, scores of books, movies, and television shows detail the legends of such likes as Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Buffalo Bill Cody, Wild Bill Hickok, and Calamity Jane.
But you rarely hear about the prisons of the Old West. It’s like once you’re locked up in the joint, the history books pretty much pass you by.
Even graveyards get more attention, as Tombstone’s Boothill had its own movie.
Today, the Yuma Territorial Prison remains as Yuma’s biggest tourist draw. A popular destination for motorcyclists in Arizona and Southern California, it’s the focus of an annual biker rally, “The Yuma Prison Run“.
A visit to the prison grounds won’t reveal any famous names synonymous with the American West however. The people locked up here mostly committed less-than-sensational crimes, stuff like embezzlement, adultery, burglary, and even polygamy. But there were other more daring and grisly crimes, such as Elena Estrada, who blew off half the head of her brother with a shotgun, and Pearl Hart who was sentenced for robbing a stagecoach.
Otherwise, the Yuma Territorial Prison is a great way to get a feel for the “Real West”. As it turns out, prisoners assembled for the prison band, performed in prison theater, and could grow flowers in the prison garden. While there were a number of escapees and a riot, most prisoners either served out their term or were pardoned for good behavior.
But it’s not to say that the Yuma Territorial Prison is boring. Just touching the stone walls, iron gates, and seeing the graffiti scribbled on cell walls, gives you that eerie feeling of traveling through history. To know that you’re standing in the same vibe where convicts wasted away in their cells at 115 degree F heat, amid cockroaches, six people to cell, and an open bucket of feces, is hard to put into words. To realize that you’re looking at the same piece of soil where prisoners coughed up their lungs with tuberculosis, is humbling.
You can even walk through the prison cemetery.
The prison’s solitary confinement wasn’t really solitary. It was a cave known as “the hole”, blasted out of a hillside and the prison would keep stuffing more guys into it without regard to overcrowding. People were put in there with only their underwear and only dirt and rock to sleep on.
Even women were put into the same “hole” with men, and of course raped, though only one prison baby was born.
If you plan to visit Yuma Territorial Prison, take the time to hang out in downtown to visit The Pint House, a great little bar & grill of local eats and local craft beer.
Yuma Territorial Prison
1 Prison Hill Road
Yuma, AZ 85364