Prison is never a good place to find yourself, but imagine being stuck in a stone prison exposed to the summer sun where afternoon temperatures can reach more than 120 degrees, all the while being forced to build the expansion of the prison itself. That is exactly what more than 3,000 prisoner endured from 1876 to 1909 inside the walls of the Yuma Territorial Prison.
It was in July of 1876 that the first seven prisoners arrived in this remote and parched outpost in the Sonoran desert, and they were required to help construct the unfinished prison and cells that would soon be their new home. The people that were sent here were being punished for a wide ranging list of crimes, from typical hardened crimes like larceny to cold-blooded murder, to more bizarre crimes such as adultery and selling liquor to an Indian, and the prisoner list included a Mormon polygamist, a Mexican revolutionary, and well-known characters from Tombstone.
Possibly the most well known and colorful of its list of inmates was Buckskin Frank Leslie. A former army scout, gunfighter, and bartender, in 1889 Leslie was sentenced to life in prison for killing his common law wife in a drunken, jealous rage. Prior to this incident, he had been a bartender and knew the Earps when he lived in Tombstone. His life sentence was shortened when he was pardoned and released in 1896. At the same time that Frank Leslie was serving his sentence, another prominent character from Tombstone served in the prison, but on the other side of the bars. In 1890, John Behan became superintendent of the prison. He had been the sheriff of Cochise County at the time of the Gunfight at the OK Corral, and it was Behan who unsuccessfully tried to stop the Earps and Doc Holliday from march to immortality.
Life in the prison was never easy, but for those who didn’t learn and continued to break the rules, life got even harder. Prisoners dreaded the “Dark Hole,” a solitary confinement cell carved entirely out of the stone below the usual cells. Prisoners were enclosed in a steel cage in the darkness of the man-made cave for days at a time and only given bread and water a couple of times a time. It could literally drive a man to madness. Another practice that was common practice was shackling those who had tried to escape. If the armed guns in the towers, the high walls, and the formidable surrounding desert weren’t enough of a deterrent, the 18 pound ball and chain would make another escape attempt even more difficult.
Many students would describe their time in school as like being in jail, but for the youth of Yuma in 1910, they could literally claim that their school was a prison. That’s because a year after the facility shut down as a penitentiary , Yuma Union High School occupied the building until 1914. From this short stent on the grounds, the high school acquired the mascot the Criminals, which has stuck to the present day. The 1920’s saw the former prison used as an hospital, only to see patients be replaced later on by the homeless of the Depression occupying the cells as temporary homes. Today, a visit to the now State Park is much more enjoyable. Visitors can enter the same cells and “the hole” that a century ago were the dreaded confines of the convicted and stroll the prison yard with the confidence that they will be able to freely walk out at the end of their visit.
Yuma, Arizona October 2014