Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park: A High School Full of Criminals

Step inside Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park, site of one of the most feared places in the American Southwest.

It was one of the most feared places in the Southwest, a place of horror stories and legends. So why would anyone want to visit the Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park?

If you’ve read anything I’ve written, you can probably tell I love history. (I even wrote a book sharing stories of Chicago’s intriguing and often shady past.) 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 Yuma Historical Museum, but didn’t get the full background.

Casa de Coronado Motor Hotel Museum
Yuma Historical Museum, located at the Casa de Coronado Motor Hotel

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 intended as an insult and turning it into a badge of honor.

History of the Yuma Territorial Prison

The Yuma Territorial Prison opened in 1876 and was pretty much hell. The first seven inmates built their own cells, constructing their prison on a bluff above the Colorado River, which would flood three months out of the year and turn it into a peninsula.

If they caught you talking, they chained you 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.

Yuma Territorial Prison Cell
Yuma Territorial Prison Cell

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

Prisoners who behaved themselves could 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.

How the Yuma Territorial Prison became a high school

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.

Yuma Territorial Prison
Yuma Territorial Prison

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

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.

Ocean to Ocean Bridge
Ocean to Ocean Bridge

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 because of 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.”  

Find more things to do in Yuma Arizona.

Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park Details

View from Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Site. River with green plants and brown mountains in the distance.
View from the prison

Located in the city of Yuma, Arizona, the Yuma Territorial Prison was a prison facility that operated from 1876 to 1909. It was home to a variety of notorious criminals, including stagecoach robbers, murderers, and cattle rustlers.

As you walk through the historic site, you’ll learn about the prison’s history and see some of the original cell blocks and buildings. You can also visit the Yuma Territorial Prison Museum, which houses a variety of artifacts and exhibits on the prison and some of the prison’s famous inmates.

Exhibits include an introduction inside the Visitor Center. You can also see:

  • Original cellblocks
  • Water tank
  • Guard Tower (with a great view)
  • Sally port
  • Library room
  • Caliche hill

One highlight, so to speak, of the Yuma Territorial Prison is the “Dark Cell,” a solitary confinement cell that was used to punish unruly prisoners.

It was considered one of the harshest punishment methods in the prison and was used sparingly.

Besides touring the prison, you can also visit the nearby Yuma Quartermaster Depot State Historic Park, which was used to store and distribute supplies to military forts in the region.

Both parks are part of the larger Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area, which also includes the Colorado River State Historic Park, East and West Wetlands, and Pivot Point.

Yuma Quartermaster Depot - Fragile - must be Italian
At the Yuma Quartermaster Depot

The Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Site is a fascinating piece of Arizona’s history and is definitely worth a visit for anyone interested in the state’s past.

Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park is open daily except for December 25. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors 62 and over, and $5 for children ages 7 to 13.

No pets are allowed, nor is running. You’re welcome to take photos of everything except the paintings. And don’t forget to visit the Yuma Territorial Prison gift shop for souvenirs.

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