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Spirits in Solitary at the Yuma Territorial Prison

By Ellen Robson

Many old prisons are haunted: Alcatraz, the Ohio State Reformatory, and Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia are perhaps the best known. They are full of prisoners who refuse to leave their cells and plagued with bloodcurdling screams, ghostly voices and the sounds of rattling chains. Another prison to add to this haunted list is Arizona’s Yuma Territory Prison.

Yuma is in the far southwest area of Arizona, close to the California border. The Yuma Territory Prison is perched on top of a rocky hill, overlooking the small town.

From 1876 through 1909, the prison housed over 3,000 prisoners, including 29 women. Overcrowding essentially closed the prison: in 1909 inmates were shackled together and transported to the prison in Florence, Arizona. Yuma Union High School used the facility until 1914 and in the 1920s, hobos and bums took advantage of the empty cells for shelter. During the depression it was used as a haven for the homeless and their families.

It seems as if some of the prisoners’ sentences have extended into their afterlife. Accounts of ghostly activity, both from staff members and visitors, are not uncommon. Especially from the “dark cell.”

When a prisoner broke the rules, he was confined in solitary to the “dark cell,” which measured 10 feet by ten feet. He would be dressed only in his underwear and existed on one meal of bread and water each day. He would sometimes have both legs individually chained to two ringbolts. The only light during the day came from a small ventilation shaft in the ceiling. After the sun went down, the prisoner was in total darkness. He often shared the dark cell with scorpions and snakes, and whether these varmints slithered into the dark cell from the outside or sadistic guards dropped them down the ventilation shaft to further torture prisoners, as they had claimed, will never be known. After serving their time in the dark cell, some prisoners were sent directly to the insane asylum in Phoenix.

Surprisingly, the most prominent ghost in the “dark cell” might be that of a small child. The ghostly phantom loves pinching, poking and touching with icy fingers, but only if you’re wearing red clothing. A psychic touring the prison felt the spirit wasn’t an angry prisoner but rather that of a little girl. Perhaps her family was one of the many who found themselves homeless and living at the prison until they could get back on their feet.

A staff writer for a regional magazine in Arizona, wanting to experience what the prisoners went through, attempted to spend 48 hours in the dark cell. She was shackled to the ringbolt with only a jug of water and a loaf of bread. The magazine scribe fell short of her goal by 11 hours, insisting that she felt she wasn’t alone in the cell. It probably didn’t help that the ventilation shaft was covered, blocking out all rays of light.

The dark cell is only one area where ghostly activity occurs. Assistant Park Manager Jesse Torres was in the museum early one morning when he thought that a co-worker had called out to him. “Did you get it?” he recalled her to say. “I proceeded to the back office to talk to her,” Torres says, “but learned that she was in the Ramada building, which isn’t even close to the museum. In fact, I was the only one in the museum.”

Torres continues: “At the far end of the corridor is Cell 14, which was occupied in the early 1900s by John Ryan. He was not only disliked by the guards but by the prisoners as well. At times when I pass his old cell, I find myself shivering because of the coldness. John was found guilty of a ‘crime against nature,’ which meant he committed rape or another crime of sexual deviation. Before he finished his sentence, he committed suicide in his cell.”

Other accounts are muffled conversations in vacant rooms; witnesses “seeing” things out of the corner of their eyes; and a woman who sings in the visitor’s area early in the morning. “Johnny,” another harmless ghost, doesn’t venture out of the gift shop. He’s content flicking coins in the cash register but always leaves the bills alone.

If you like having the bejeesus scared out of you, join the staff on the last Saturday of every October for a ghostly tour. You’ll hear all about the killings and suicides that took place behind bars. You’ll also learn first hand from the tour guides about experiences they’ve had encountering former prisoners who haunt the dark corridors and dreary cells.

The Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park is opened daily from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. except for Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve day, when it closes at 2:00 p.m. It is closed December 25. For more information go to http://www.pr.state.az.us/Parks/parkhtml/yuma.html or call (928) 783-4771.

Cellblock 3

Screams and other strange noises wouldn't be entirely unexpected in someplace like a prison, but when the noises aren't coming from the convicts, it's a different story altogether.

The Arizona State Prison in Florence, according to anonymous parties, frequently experiences strange goings-on in the area known as Cellblock 3. Among them are the cold spots and localized mists customarily reported in the presence of spectral activity. There are also source-less, tortured cries and the occasional metallic clang of cell doors opening and closing by themselves. Sometimes, the

doors are allegedly found open between inmate counts after they've all been locked shut.

Such activity isn't uncommon in places with a violent past, and the Florence lock-up is no exception. Executions have been carried out at this facility for almost 100 years, with the first hanging taking place in 1910. Since that time, at least 86 executions have come to pass by noose, gas or needle. Additionally, the prison maintains its own cemetery, hosting more than 300 former inmates who've died here, many certainly by disturbing means.

Only one riot occurred at the Florence prison, in 1973, but it led to the deaths of two staff members. The guards were lured into a cell to extinguish a fire, presumably set by an inmate, then beaten and stabbed. The incident took place in Cellblock 3.

Perhaps this site would be an interesting place to investigate first-hand, but seeing as it's an active prison, it’s probably not worth doing what it would take to get in!

Weird Arizona

 

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