Sunday, March 6, 2016

Prison Bound: Day Trip to Yuma Territorial Prison Museum, Yuma, Arizona

The Guard Tower
(c) 2016 by Marcy J. Miller
 In the hottest (southwestern) corner of one of the southwest's hottest states is a well-preserved patch of ground no Arizona history enthusiast should neglect to visit: the Yuma Territorial Prison.  Built in 1875/6 above the rocky cliffs banking the Colorado River at Yuma Crossing, the prison housed 3,069 inmates during its 33 years as a correctional facility. Not only were many of the prisoners infamous, influential, and colorful, but many of the peace officers affiliated with the prison were among the territory's best-known. From gunslinger Buckskin Frank Leslie to the media darling female stagecoach robber Pearl Hart, inmates included hard men and hard-luck stories alike.


The Main Cell Block
(c) 2016 Marcy J. Miller

Despite the inclination to assume the prison was a brutal hell-hole, for its time the Yuma penitentiary was a surprisingly humane facility. Though set in a forbidding location where summer temperatures could soar to 120 degrees, the adobe- and stone-walled facility was a vast improvement over the unventilated Yuma County Jail nearby. The most severe sanctioned disciplinary actions were the ball-and-chain or - for the most incorrigible prisoners - time spent caged in "the Dark Cell," an unlit, filthy grotto carved into the rock hill on the premises. The prison required inmates to work and contribute - and it afforded them opportunity to learn a variety of skills and arts. It boasted a considerable library, differential case-by-case treatment for prisoners who were there on non-violent offenses (such as the 12 prominent Mormons committed for polygamy charges), medical care and an on-site hospital, and special consideration for prisoners who merited such treatment by their heroic contributions or by simple compassion for their plight.


Within the "Dark Cell"
(c) 2016 Marcy J. Miller
 The prison housed male and female prisoners, although initially having no special quarters for women.  Even one child was born within its walls and allowed to stay there until his mother's release. Prison staff apparently made concessions for female prisoners when practicable, shortening their stays on occasion.  Female inmates were no delicate flowers, though: one, Elena Estrada, had been incarcerated for cutting the heart out of her unfaithful lover and plopping it onto his face. Another such paragon of feminine virtue had killed her brother with a shotgun during a disagreement over her dancing. Not only did the presence of women cause special logistical issues for staff, but they caused many a fellow inmate to incur discipline for attempting to smuggle letters to them.


The Women's Prisoner Quarters
(c) 2016 Marcy J. Miller
As in many western prisons, inmates became skilled at some of the more time-consuming arts. Anyone who, like myself, has tinkered with the practice of making braided horsehair bridles will appreciate the fact that if you're doing 20 to life, you might just have the time and patience to devote to such a craft. Below is a stunning example of such work.

Horsehair Bridle Made by Inmates
(c) 2016 Marcy J. Miller
Not only did inmates practice traditional "western" craft, but some unexpected arts as well: the beautiful lace collar below was painstakingly made by convicted murderer C.E. Hobart, a rough man with a surprising knack for tatting. Inmates often taught each other their skills in addition to being responsible for making prison uniforms, doing facility infrastructure improvements, providing tonsorial services and even managing bookkeeping of inmate accounts (with predictable results).
C.E. Hobart's Handmade Lace
(c) 2016 Marcy J. Miller

When authorities decided to build a large, new prison in Florence, Yuma inmates did the construction work. In 1907, Governor Joseph Kibbey appointed former Captain Thomas Rynning of the Arizona Rangers to the position of prison warden. Rynning was a firm believer in treating criminals fairly and in providing them incentive and tools for reform. He convinced Governor Kibbey to authorize two days off their sentence for every days' work spent on prison construction. Rynning ensured the prisoners were treated well but that they worked hard. According to Rynning's memoir, Gun Nothces, he was proud that the workers - ultimately numbering up to 500 men - not only remained in good spirits, but that they learned carpentry, steel work, and concrete skills. He was also proud that although they worked in the open, only one escaped from the construction crews.

Superintendent Tom Rynning, Former Captain of the Arizona Rangers.
(c) 2016 Marcy J. Miller
 
After the Florence facility was completed in 1909, the Yuma prison was closed. It still had many more contributions to make to the community, however. When Yuma needed a new high school and had no place to house it, the students were educated in the former prison hospital (located on the second floor of the main cell block). The school's teams were from thence forward called "The Criminals."

During the Great Depression, the old prison housed the homeless. In 1939, all "vagrants" were expelled from the prison. Many left behind graffiti scratched into the cell walls.


Graffiti Inside a Cell
(c) 2016 Marcy J. Miller

Among the other uses of the prison buildings included housing a VFW post, serving as a setting for many films, and the site of many community events (even weekly yoga classes are currently offered in the guard tower). In 1940, what remained of the old prison was preserved by the city of Yuma as a museum. It became a state park in 1960.

Visit the park's website for help planning your visit to the park: Yuma Territorial Prison Website. Pro-tip: visit during the cooler months; wear sun-smart clothing; and take a few minutes to stop at the prisoner cemetery situated outside the museum grounds, near the entry to the parking lot. Read up a bit on the prison history before you visit so you can get the most out of your visit. The area hosts many other sites of historical interest - so leave some time to check them out while you're in that neck of the desert. Enjoy!

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