On July 1, 1876, the Yuma Territorial Prison accepted its first seven inmates who had built the prison with their own hands. For the next 33 years, it would house over three thousand inmates, 29 of who were women, serving sentences for everything from polygamy to murder. Grand larceny was the most common crime for which men served time.
One hundred and eleven people died while serving out their sentences, despite the fact that most only served a portion of their sentences because it was so easy to get parole or pardoned. Most of the deaths were due to tuberculosis, which was common in the area. Twenty-six prisoners successfully escaped, but only two were from within the confines of the prison.
All written evidence shows that the prisoners were treated humanely. Those who got out of hand were put in the “dark cell,” an early form of isolation. For those who attempted to escape and failed, it was the ball and chain typically associated with prisoners. No executions were carried out at the prison because it was the responsibility of the county government to carry out capital punishment.
In their spare time, prisoners often crafted items to be sold at public bazaars held on Sundays after church services. The prison had the first “public” library in the territory. Tours of the prison helped raise funds for purchasing books. One of the first electrical generating plants in the West provided lighting and a ventilation system for all cell blocks. Education was available to the prisoners and many learned to read and write while incarcerated.
By 1907, the prison was over-crowded and there was no room in the area for expansion. The convicts built a new prison in Florence, Arizona and by September 15, 1909, the last prisoner was gone from Yuma.
As mentioned previously, one hundred eleven people died while incarcerated and many believe their spirits still roam the prison. The strongest feelings seem to be in the area of the “dark cell,” yet there are no records of anyone ever dying while serving time in that particular cell. Those who have had experiences at the prison site believe that spirits are drawn to that particular cell because of the emotional charge the cell has.
Cell 14 is also one where people have experienced a cold touch of air. This particular cell was home to John Ryan in the early 1900s. He was serving a sentence for a ‘crime against nature’ which probably meant he raped a woman or committed some other sexual deviance. No one at the prison liked John Ryan; not the guards nor the other prisoners. Before he completed his sentence, he committed suicide in his cell.
Other various encounters include a woman who can be heard singing in the visitor’s area early in the morning and “Johnny” who lingers in the gift shop playing with the coins in the register.