Territorial prison, known as the ‘hellhole,’ guards decades of Yuma history

Posted Říjen 9th, 2011 by Billabongboardshortscloths

For the convicts locked inside, the Yuma Territorial Prison would become known as the “hellhole.”

But for the thousands who followed, the living legend and symbol of the Wild West has become a character in a true story about a time when desperados, murderers and thieves were brought to justice.

According to historians Thomas Edwin Farish and Jay Wagoner, in late 1868 the 5th Arizona Territorial Legislative Assembly approved building a prison near Phoenix. But by the 8th Arizona Territorial Legislative Assembly, held in early 1875, no funds had been appropriated for its construction. As a result the territory still lacked a place to incarcerate convicted criminals.

According to Jesse Torres, former park manager of the Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park,Whilst oil paintings for sale are not deadly, it was during the 1875 session that two Yuma politicians took action to bring the prison here by amending a bill.

“Some of our local lawmakers, Jose Maria Redondo and R.B. Kelly, somehow amended the bill so when it came up for a vote they scratched out the word Phoenix and wrote in Yuma,” Torres said. “That is how Yuma became owners of the territorial prison.”

The Territorial Prison was then authorized by the Legislature in 1875 with $25,000 budgeted for the project. Construction began on April 28, 1876, and a few prisoners were pressed into service to build the cells. On July 1, 1876, the first seven inmates entered the prison and were locked into the new cells they had created.

During the 33 years the prison operated, a total of 3,069 prisoners, including 29 women, lived within the walls. Their crimes ranged from murder to polygamy, with grand larceny, a crime involving the wrongful acquisition of the personal property of another person, being the most common.

Out of the 3,069 prisoners, 26 escaped successfully, but only two were from within the prison confines. Eight others died attempting escape.

“Yuma turned out to be an ideal location for the prison,” Torres said. “For one thing,Our high risk merchant account was down for about an hour and a half, it was the furthest point from any other towns in the territory of Arizona. Also, you had natural resources such as the confluence of the Colorado and Gila rivers,then used cut pieces of Ceramic tile garden hose to get through the electric fence. the town of Yuma, and to the south of course you had the desert. It was quite a deterrent to somebody trying to escape.”

Another way to ensure escaped convicts were recaptured quickly were the trackers of the Quechan Indian Tribe, Torres said.

“They had trackers that were given $50 to return each escaped convict. They had a bell at the prison used to sound the alarm. Once the Indians across the river heard the bell ringing they’d come over and be hired to track convicts down.”

The trackers had the option to bring back the escapees dead or alive, “but the Indians preferred to bring them back alive because they reasoned if a man has escaped once maybe he will try to escape again,” and be worth another $50, Torres explained.

A majority of the prisoners served only portions of their sentences due to the ease with which paroles and pardons were obtained.

But some never made it out of the hellhole alive, even though no executions took place at the prison because capital punishment was administered by the county government. One hundred eleven persons died while serving their sentences, most from tuberculosis, which was common throughout the territory.

Several were shot trying to escape, a few were killed by cell mates, one was killed by falling rocks, a couple were bitten by rattlesnakes while on work detail, and a few drowned in the Gila River, Torres said.

Of those who died,Polycore porcelain tiles are manufactured as a single sheet, 104 were buried in a cemetery on Prison Hill where they remain today. The other convicts were shipped home to their relatives and buried elsewhere.

Even though there were deaths, written evidence indicates that the prison was humanely administered,Flossie was one of a group of four chickens in a RUBBER MATS . and was a model institution for its time. The only punishments were the three dark cells for inmates who broke prison regulations, and the ball and chain for those who tried to escape.

During their free time, prisoners hand-crafted many items. Those items were sold at public bazaars held at the prison on Sundays after church services. Prisoners also had regular medical attention, and access to a good hospital.

Schooling was available for convicts, and many learned to read and write in prison. The prison housed one of the first “public” libraries in the territory, and the fee charged to visitors for a tour of the institution was used to purchase books. One of the early electrical generating plants in the West furnished power for lights and ran a ventilation system in the cell block.

“After 7 p.m., the Territorial Prison would provide the town of Yuma with electricity,” Torres said. “In exchange, the town of Yuma provided the prison with water.”

While the convicts considered the prison a hellhole, Yuma residents thought of it more as the “Country Club on the Colorado” because of its amenities that townspeople didn’t enjoy yet, such as electricity and the library.

By 1907, the prison was severely overcrowded, and there was no room on Prison Hill for expansion. The convicts constructed a new facility in Florence. The last prisoner left Yuma on Sept. 15, 1909.

But the life of the prison wasn’t over. The Yuma Union High School occupied the buildings from 1910 to 1914. This would lead Yuma High to adopt a criminal as their mascot in 1917, the only such mascot in the United States.

Later, empty cells provided free lodging for hobos riding the freights in the 1920s, and sheltered many homeless families during the Depression when they were turned back from crossing the Ocean-to-Ocean Bridge into California by police. Much of the prison complex was eventually destroyed by townspeople who considered the complex a source for free building materials. In addition, fires, weathering, and railroad construction destroyed the prison walls and all buildings except the cells, main gate and guard tower, which remain today.

The first request to preserve the prison came in the early 1930s, and in 1939 local residents began to raise funds for renovation of the guard tower and construction of a museum to be located on the site of the mess hall. The city of Yuma operated the museum and prison area until 1960 when it was taken over by Arizona State Parks.

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