When you think of the wild west, you think of cowboys and indians and how the west was won. However do you often think of what happened beyond the gunfights? What happened to those who were caught or those that didn't result in a shoot out?
A quick trip to Yuma and you might just get answers to most of these type questions as you can visit one of the oldest prisons in the west. This prison was one that assisted in taming the wild days of the southwest and all those within that time.
In the days where prisoners were in charge of creating their own quarters, the days were hard and long in the heat of the Arizona desert. Adobe and steel lined the hillside and prisoners were packed in like sardines for charges ranging from infidelity to murder. It was known as a premier site in the west but those staying referred to it as hell in a cell.
We ventured there on a day filled with lengthy driving as our half way point on the way to Tucson and found the Yuma Territorial Prison to be a haunting reminder of the west and just how primitive conditions could be.
It was told that there were strange activities throughout some of the cells including that of the dark cell at the rear of the prison. So as we toured within the gates an eerie feeling crept around some of the corners. It probably did not help of course that some of the cells were programmed with motion sensors which trigger speaking.
Through a museum was the depiction of the days long since passed with depictions of those which were housed within the walls and the turmoil to which they each experienced. We were in shock slightly by the sentencing differences between those days and the modern day as many were held for less than 3 years for serious crimes and many crimes were actually pardoned within their sentencing term.
A prison break was attempted in the most noted piece of the prison’s history to which the warden was injured and ultimately led to the changes of the facilities in way of security. A tour guide recalled the events of that horrific day as he staged the scene for all those following the tour.
One of the most significant discoveries which can be seen within this prison however, is the facilities designed to house both men and women. Though many of the women there were charged with petty crimes, they were held at first in the general population area. Later they were moved to specialty cells which contained ore space than that of their male counterparts.
As we traveled into the dark cell, also known as solitary, the feeling of anxiety began to build as we slowly inched down a dark hall into a room with a steel cage in its center. In its most populous day, the doors were closed and prisoners were left in only underwear in total darkness. Occasionally guards would throw snakes or scorpions down the ventilation hole in the ceiling, leaving prisoners to fend for themselves against not only the elements of the cold damp room but also the beasts of prey.
It was quite the experience as we visited the facilities and stepped back in time to see just how the west was won by prisons like these. Though the facility was later shut down and used for a variety of different businesses the history never faded from the thick walls of the once historic prison. Now with its footprint telling history to each visitor for only $5 per visit, it is a piece to the puzzle which helps reveal so much of our fabric of life before convenience.