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Hellhole or country club? Yuma Territorial Prison was both during its heyday
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Was the Yuma Territorial Prison a gruesome “hellhole,” as depicted in many Hollywood films? Or was it a progressive and humane prison well ahead of its time?
“The irony — it was really both,” said Charles Flynn, executive director of the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area. “To me, that is why it maintains a continuing fascination for people.”
After 33 years in operation, the last inmate left the Yuma Territorial Prison on Sept. 15, 1909. But even though it was closed, the notoriety of the prison would live on through popular culture.
Within five years, the prison was used in the filming of the documentary “Life in a Western Penitentiary.” It returned to the silver screen in both 1917 and 1919 in the films “The Honor System” and “Brothers Divided,” respectively.
The prison was also used in the filming of “The Badlanders” (1958) and “Riot” (1969), as well as referenced in “3:10 to Yuma” (1957) and the 2007 remake of “3:10 to Yuma.”
Most recently, Hollywood returned to the prison in May 2011 to film “To Kill a Memory,” starring country singer Kix Brooks. Brooks portrays a former lawman turned outlaw named Duke Donovan, who is carrying out his sentence at the prison. The movie is scheduled to be released some time in 2013.
The movie producer, David Bennett, said in an interview at the time of filming that the prison was chosen because of the “authenticity” of the location. “I wouldn't put one of these movies on a set in Hollywood.”
In addition, the prison “is a very important character in the film. It has a patina, a look that you couldn't duplicate anywhere else,” he said.
Filming on location made it easier for Brooks, formerly a singer with Grammy Award-winning duo Brooks and Dunn, to portray Donovan.
“This has really helped me get into character — being in a place like this as opposed to something that was made in Hollywood or something that was just an average jail,” he said during filming. “You can really get a sense of how things were.
And being “locked up” made it easy to imagine the hardship prisoners faced, Brooks added.
“Just to be confined in that environment, I can imagine after a week, especially if it was hot, what it could do to you physically.”
During the 33 years the prison operated, a total of 3,069 prisoners, including 29 women, would learn just how inhospitable conditions at the Territorial Prison could be. “It was a hard life,” Flynn said.
Construction of the facility began on April 28, 1876. It was completed by July and was initially occupied by seven inmates.
Over the next three decades, the prison would become home to many convicts from at least 21 different countries. There were prostitutes, carpenters, cooks, farmers, gamblers, wheelwrights, sailors, and laborers. Their crimes included murder, polygamy, adultery and theft.
The convicts faced sizzling summers and cold winters inside their cells. When they misbehaved, they were fitted with a ball and chain. When they unsuccessfully tried to escape, or were caught breaking the rules repeatedly, they were thrown in a dark cell nicknamed the “snake den.”
According to the Arizona Department of Corrections, a dark cell was a room about 10 feet by 10 feet that contained an iron cage in which the prisoners would be locked. The only light came from a small ventilation shaft in the ceiling and contact with other people was forbidden. Bread and water was given once a day and prisoners were stripped to their undergarments.
According to an article published in The Arizona Sentinel on Feb. 23, 1884, one convict who longed for freedom convinced other prisoners to bury him in the side of a river bank while on work detail. He intended to remain buried there until he could make an escape.
A guard witnessed the entire ordeal and reported it to the superintendant, who found the man “almost suffocated from the weight of the dirt. The would-be escapee now occupies the ‘snake den,' and his accomplices, carry a ball-and-chain. The way of the transgression's is hard.”
The dark cell became known as the snake den because of rumors circulating among the inmates about the guards dropping snakes through the ventilation shaft onto the person below. Although historians generally reject the authenticity of such tales, the rumors have lived on in pop culture.
What is for certain is that some of the prisoners never made it out of the prison alive. Even though no executions took place at the prison because capital punishment was administered by the county government, 111 prisoners died while serving out their sentences, one third of them from tuberculosis, which was common throughout the territory.
Several others were shot trying to escape, a few were killed by cell mates, one was smashed by falling rocks, a couple were bitten by rattlesnakes while on work detail, and a few drowned in the Gila River.
According to an article published in The Sentinel on March 18, 1888, an Apache Indian named Go-to-pi-ni, who was serving a 25-year sentence, “died in the A.M. the result of coming in contact with a rattlesnake yesterday. He was working in the prison farm, making a garden, when an immense rattler drained its fangs into his forearm ... everything was done to save him, but to no avail.”
Of those who died, 104 were buried in a cemetery on Prison Hill, where they remain. The seven other convicts were shipped home to their relatives and buried elsewhere.
To the inmates, the prison really was a hellhole. But to the residents of Yuma, it was thought of as a “Country Club on the Colorado” because of the advanced technology available to the inmates, including electrical lighting and a mechanized ventilation system, said Flynn.
“There were advances that the people in town didn't have,” he said.
According to an article published in The Sentinel on April 2, 1887, the Territorial Prison was “one of the model penal institutions of the United States and all visitors are charmed with the splendid discipline and neatness discernible on every hand.”
According to Flynn, many of the superintendents who oversaw the prison worked to reform the prisoners, a novel concept during the late 19th-Century.
“For its time it was an incredibly progressive administration,” he said. “They believed in reform.”
Prisoners had regular medical attention, plus access to a good hospital. Schooling was also available to the convicts, and many learned to read and write in prison.
In addition, the prison housed one of the first and perhaps the largest “public” library in the Arizona Territory at the time, Flynn said.
But 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, Ariz., and the Yuma Prison was vacated by 1909.
Over a century later, the prison continues on as a living legend and symbol of the Wild West. Both a hellhole and a model institution, it is a character in a true story about a time when desperados, murderers and thieves were brought to justice.