Yuma Territorial Prison Museum: A High School Full of Criminals

Step inside Yuma Territorial Prison Museum, one of the most feared places in the American Southwest.

Step inside Yuma Territorial Prison Museum, one of the most feared places in the American Southwest.

If you’ve read much of anything I’ve written, you can probably tell that I love history. Part of that love stems from the context the past provides the present.

No place exists in a vacuum of either space or time, and knowing what happened before provides a better understanding of what is happening now.

For example, we’d seen the striped shirts and the convict mascot of the Yuma High Criminals at the Casa de Coronado Museum, but didn’t get the full background.

Without the history, you might think it’s a terrible nickname for a high school. But, just like Chicago’s “Second City” moniker, it’s a title that Yumans wear proudly, flaunting what was meant to be an insult and turning it into a badge of honor.

The Yuma Territorial Prison opened in 1876 and was pretty much hell. The first seven inmates built their own cells. It was constructed on a bluff above the Colorado River, which would flood three months out of the year and turn it into a peninsula. If you were caught talking you were chained to the floor.

The heat was insufferable. Six men occupied one cell, and the lone chamber pot was emptied just once a day. If you were bad (which is a relative condition in a prison), you were sent to the Dark Cell.

Just the name gives me the heebie jeebies.

We entered this den of darkness through a narrow hallway and you could almost feel the desperation weeping from the stones. While the cell itself was tall enough for us to stand upright, prisoners would be put in a cage that was only 5’ tall.

At one point there were fourteen men stuffed in that cage; as we stood there I could picture their faces upturned to the one porthole of light high above.

If you were really bad, you were punished with a ball and chain, and the worst offenders of all were sent to the snake den.

What’s the lesson here, kids? DON’T BE BAD.

Yuma Territorial Prison Cell
Yuma Territorial Prison Cell
Yuma Territorial Prison Cell
Yuma Territorial Prison Cell
Yuma Territorial Prison
Yuma Territorial Prison

Prisoners who behaved themselves were able to take advantage of the many amenities that prompted the law-abiding citizens of Yuma to call the prison the Country Club on the Colorado.

These jailbirds had two bathtubs and three showers. There was a band. They even had a library with 2,000 books, which was the biggest collection in the territory.

If you couldn’t read and write, you could learn. And they had electricity, possessing one of the first generators in the West.

The prison closed in 1909. That same year Yuma Union High School was founded. After the school’s building burned down in 1910 it needed a new home, and some enterprising souls pointed out that this big huge building was completely empty.

For the next few years Yuma’s children learned their reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic in a place where criminals feared to tread.

They weren’t called the Yuma Criminals yet, though. That happened after they’d already moved out.

When the football team defeated the Phoenix Coyotes, the sore losers started screaming that their opponents were a bunch of criminals, and the name stuck. At first, the town was none too happy about it, but by 1917 the school officially adopted the nickname.

Take that, Phoenix.

Before leaving we checked out the view from the Watch Tower. On one side we could see the Ocean to Ocean bridge. On the other, the view stretched to Castle Dome, and below us was the Yuma East Wetlands and the Colorado River.

Yuma Territorial Prison Watchtower
The Watchtower
View from Yuma Territorial Prison
This was their view
Ocean to Ocean Bridge
Ocean to Ocean Bridge

To keep the theme going we ended the night with dinner at Prison Hill Brewing Company. Down Main Street from Lutes Casino, it was Yuma’s first craft brewery, and on that Tuesday evening on the last day of February it was packed.

We met Ann Walker, from the Yuma Visitors Bureau, and her husband, Charles Flynn, and they gave us the inside scoop of life in Yuma. Tidbits like the windshield wipers rot in the summer, so when the first rain comes they fly off when you turn them on.

And that Arizona was going to shut down the Yuma Territorial Prison Museum in 2010 due to a budget crisis, so the city took it over.

The “Chain Gang,” as they called themselves, raised $70,000 in sixty days and received much more than that in grants. They used the funds to make several renovations and improvements and the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area has been running it ever since.

When the state wanted to resume operations, the city said “No. We don’t want to have to save it again.”  

They should know, since Charles was the Executive Director of Yuma Crossing.

We dined on a menu of smoked meats and specialties with names like “shivved” sausage and meatballs and The Verdict.

Owner and brewer Chris Wheeler offered beers that might be considered risky in a city that’s not as acclimated to unusual drafts as places like San Diego or Asheville. Jim had a tart cherry saison, and I tried the chai spiced date saison.

When it comes to craft beer, Prison Hill may have been the only game in town, but that didn’t mean it was resting on its hops and barley.

shivved sausage and meatballs at Prison Hill Brewing Co. in Yuma
“Shivved sausage and meatballs”
Prison Hill Brewing Co
Prison Hill Brewing Co

Our plan the next day was to visit the Yuma Quartermaster Depot State Historic Park, make a quick stop at the Salton Sea, and be in Oceanside by early evening.

Ann threw a wrench in those plans when she told us about two more places that we absolutely had to see, and they were kinda sorta on the way. Just like our detour to the singing road in Albuquerque, we figured “we’ve come this far, why not?” and this time we wouldn’t have to backtrack.

But that was tomorrow.

Visit the Yuma Territorial Prison Museum at 220 Prison Hill Rd, Yuma, AZ 85364; www.yumaprison.org

Step inside Yuma Territorial Prison, a museum in Yuma, Arizona