A Prison Has Risenby John Scott on Apr. 25, 2013, under Uncategorized
I think we can all agree that Arizona Territory was truly the epitome of the wild west. Just about every manner of trouble could be found here, and settlers were constantly having to deal with it. Law was scarce in most parts, and soldiers had their hands full chasing renegade Indians. If you were an outlaw, and you were caught, your captors would in all likelihood lynch you. Option #2 was back-breaking time in a disease-ridden prison. Option #3 was you shot it out on the street with Glenn Ford, and he painlessly put you in Boot Hill. Maybe option #3 is a stretch. Let’s explore option #2.
In 1876, the first prisoners at the newly constructed territorial prison in Yuma entered through the gates to serve their sentences. There were murderers, thieves, embezzlers, adulterers, and even criminals charged with “seduction under the promise of marriage.” Wow…not even sure what that is. I think I may have done it in my youth, though.
Yuma’s prison was state-of-the-art. It sported a hospital, library, and by 1885 electric blowers to cool the cells. However, it was still a hellhole. Six prisoners to a cell, a bucket for their waste, lice, bedbugs, consumption, you name it. There were plenty of rules to go around, too. If you didn’t follow them you wore a ball and chain or got thrown into the “dark cell”. Incidentally, the dark cell had a bit of a scorpion problem, so it was preferable to be on your good behavior.
Some famous inmates were Pearl Hart, “Buckskin” Frank Leslie, and William “Three-Finger Jack” Loustaunau. Three-Finger, or Jack, or William (whatever they called him), led an escape attempt in 1904. Oddly enough, the prison butcher came to the rescue and slashed one of the inmates who was attacking the superintendent. The escape didn’t succeed, and Three-Finger Jack died two years later of heat prostration.
Out of 140 escape attempts at the territorial prison, 26 succeeded. Practically a 20% success rate, which seems like a lot to me. Considering the conditions at the prison and high death rate, it might have been preferable to at least give escaping a chance. Hey, if it worked for Russell Crowe in 3:10 to Yuma, it could be worth a shot.
By 1909, over-crowding led to the closure of the prison. Many of the convicts built the new prison in Florence and were moved there. Today you can tour the prison museum and get a feel of what the place was like. Many of the buildings have been renovated or excavated, and they have displays with items used there. Experiencing the dark cell and walking the grounds is certainly enough to put you on the straight and narrow.