About the biggest tourist attraction in Yuma is a prison that closed over a hundred years ago and a prison that may now be best known from the Russell Crowe movie, 3:10 to Yuma (even though it was not seen in that movie). The Yuma Territorial Prison was built by its first inmates in 1875/76. It was operated as a prison until 1909 when it was closed in favor of a larger prison in another town. It was a territorial prison as Arizona did not become a state until 1912. It seems somewhat hard to imagine that Arizona was the last territory to become a state among the contiguous 48 States.
The Yuma prison was not a huge one. It was the only Territorial prison in the Yuma Territory and housed both men and women. Some of the cells were carved out of a rock dome on the property with the carved rock used to help build other cell blocks. All prisoners had to work in either the fields or shops. Conditions were oppressive in the Arizona summer heat and crowded cells. The wooden bunks, two towers three high to each cell had to be replaced with iron bunks because on ongoing infestations of termites, lice, bed bugs, and others. No prisoners were executed there but over 100 prisoners died while incarcerated with many buried on the grounds.
On the other hand, many locals considered the prison a “country club” as they had an electrical generator long before the town did and they used it to pump water up to a reservoir. The main guard tower was built over the top of the rock-walled reservoir to provide it some shade and cover. Many prisoners had TB and the prison had a modern-for the-time hospital to try to treat them. It was later was used as the town’s hospital.
Yuma’s high school burned down right about the time the prison was closing and the school district held its high school classes there for four years until a new high school could be built. To this day the mascot of Yuma High School is Criminals and the school’s mascot image is the face of a hardened criminal.
During the Great Depression, so many “Okies” from the “Dust Bowl” were streaming into California that California police started blocking the bridge at Yuma and refusing entry to those who didn't have money or confirmed jobs. Many of these people took refuge in the prison grounds and by default had to settle in Yuma. Others lived on the grounds for up to 10 years.
From 1940 to 1961, the prison grounds including a museum were operated by the city until they became Arizona’s third state park. Now immortalized as the destination for Russell Crowe in the 3:10 to Yuma movie, it seems to have found a whole new clientele of visitors. Many people were streaming through the place along with us on a Tuesday afternoon. Finally, Gary couldn't help but get himself in some trouble while he was there so he had to beg for mercy with the “I’m innocent” sign as they booked him. But he quickly escaped and was seen in the nearby downtown happily seeking refuge in the “casino”.