A Day Trip to Yuma Prison

Right on the edge of Arizona, just a few minutes from the border of California, is the Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park. For a detention center in the middle of the desert – it’s pretty nice.

My mom and I took a long drive to visit my brother, who lives and works at the Marine Corps base there. The sun was bright and the heat was dry. Some posts circulated online claiming that in the state of Arizona, it’s illegal to deny someone water. It’s actually a misconception. But while it’s not illegal, in the sweltering heat, it’s definitely rude.

Yuma Territorial Prison was operational from 1876 to 1909. In its final year, the last prisoners were transferred to the Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence, Arizona. That same year, Yuma High School tragically burned down. The board of the high school rented out some of the buildings in the prison complex for a few years and held classes there. The school sports teams were aptly called “The Criminals“.

The city of Yuma was not nearly as urbanized as it is today back in the late 19th Century. The Yuma Prison, however, was equipped with better amenities than most of the households in Yuma at the time. They had electricity, running water, a library 2,000 books strong (the biggest library in the Territory back then), and even entertainment in the form of the Yuma Prison Band. Some locals jokingly (snarkily) referred to it as the “Country Club”.

A number of other groups used the facilities before they were turned into the tourist attraction they are today. This included the County Hospital, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and a handful of homeless families who lived in the cells during the Great Depression.

In the late 1930s, some residents who wanted the prison to be preserved started raising funds for its renovation. Currently, you can visit the prison grounds, check out photographs and artifacts at the museum, and grab some souvenirs at the gift shop. Don’t forget to put on sunblock and stay hydrated!

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