Yuma Territorial Prison – The Dark Cell and Ghosts

I previously had the pleasure of working with Keta Diablo on the anthology, Come Love a Cowboy, so when she asked me to join her on this boxed set I jumped at the chance. Keta  lives in Minnesota on six acres of woodland. When she isn’t writing or gardening she loves to commune with nature. A lifelong animal lover, she also devotes her time and support to the local animal shelters.

Keta’s a bestselling Amazon author who writes in several genres, including western romance, historical romance, paranormal romance and the occasional gay romance. Her books have received numerous Top Pick, Book of the Month and Recommended Read reviews.

Keta larger pictureGhosts…Outlaws…and Bad Behavior

In Comes An Outlaw, our hero, Coy Santos, spent time in Yuma Prison. I read all about the ‘dark cell’ and the other punishments inflicted on prisoners for bad behavior. As the article cites below, the prison was also known for its progressive standards, including teaching prisoners to read and write and access to a well-stocked library.

Still…ghosts stories about the prison remain. I wonder…if you visited the crumbling walls of Yuma Prison today, would you feel, see or hear the spirits that once resided within its walls?

Yuma Territorial Prison – The Dark Cell and Ghosts

The first seven inmates entered the Territorial prison at Yuma, Arizona on July 1, 1876. They were locked into cells that they had constructed with their own hands. In the coming 33 years, a total of 3,069 prisoners, including 29 women, lived in the prison. Their crimes ranged from murder to polygamy, with grand larceny being the most common. During that time, 111 of the prisoners died, mostly from tuberculosis, but even so, the stories say that some of them never left this place, even in death.

Despite the reputation of the Yuma prison being a brutal place, the punishments here were very humane for the time and mostly consisted of the “dark cell”, a place of isolation for the rule breakers, and a ball and chain for those who tried to escape. It was considered a model institution and the prisoners had regular medical attention, access to a good hospital and even the opportunity to learn to read and write while incarcerated. The prison housed one of the first “public” libraries in the territory and visitors were charged a fee to tour the prison and to check out books. One of the earliest electric generating plants in the western states furnished light and ventilation for the cell blocks.

Yuma Prison Main Guard Tower

Yuma Prison Main Guard Tower

But all was not perfect and by 1907, the prison was severely overcrowded. The convicts constructed a new facility in Florence and the last of them were transferred away from Yuma by September 1909.

From 1910-1914, the former prison buildings were occupied by the Yuma High School and after that, empty cells provided free lodging for hoboes and drifters who were riding the rails across the country. The Great Depression of the 1920’s saw the prison in use once more as homeless families took up residence, seeking shelter from the elements. Theft, along with fires, weather and railroad construction destroyed most of what was left of the place. Today, only the cells, the main gate and the tower … and the ghosts…. remain.

Author Antonio Garcez, who wrote an article on the prison for Ghosts of the Prairie and featured it in his book on Arizona ghost stories, collected many stories of strange incidents and hauntings. Reported by park rangers and staff members at the historical site, the stories often spoke of the “dark cell”, the place of punishment for prisoners unable to follow the rules.

Linda Offeney, a ranger at the prison site, told Garcez about an incident when she sensed a presence in the cell that frightened her. She also told him of a photo that she had in her files that was taken of a female tourist in the 1930’s. While the woman in the photo does not appear out of the ordinary, there is a clear image of a ghostly man behind her and just inside the opening of a cell. This cell, which has since been walled up, was where insane prisoners were housed before being moved to other facilities.

She also told about a writer from the magazine Arizona Highways who came and wanted to do a story about the prison. The writer stated that she wanted to spend two days and nights in the “dark cell”, chained by the foot and with nothing but bread and water to eat and drink. The staff provided her with these things and then placed a heavy blanket over the cell door to keep out all of the sunlight, just as it would have been when the prison was in operation. The writer didn’t last for very long! Within hours, she was calling for help, claiming that “someone” else was in the cell with her!

While no records ever mention that a prisoner died while incarcerated in the “dark cell”, the prison reports do mention that at least two prisoners did leave the cell… only to be transferred immediately to an insane asylum in Phoenix. Could the presence be one of these prisoners, still lingering behind?

In addition to the prison itself being haunted, the offices and museum have also seen their share of strange happenings. Things are often moved about, lights turn on and off and on one occasion, coins from the cash register in the gift shop literally flew into the air and landed back in the drawer!

Some believe that the spirits of prisoners past remain here, perhaps trapped within the walls of the prison itself. For some men, whether it was a humane facility or not, being chained up and jailed was a fate worse than death. Are they now reliving it for all eternity?

copyrighted by Troy Taylor


TGTBTGMockupAbout Comes and Outlaw:

When a tragic accident claims her husband’s life, Jesse Santos must find a way to keep the ranch, the only home her 12-year-old son has ever known. The ranch hands have abandoned her, a gang of cutthroat ranchers want her land and an ancient Yaqui Indian insists a spirit has taken up residence in the house.

After a fifteen year absence, her husband’s brother, Coy, returns to his childhood home. He doesn’t plan on staying, and he certainly doesn’t intend to settle down with a widow and her son…no matter how pretty she is.

He’s an outlaw, after all, and made a decision to put an end to his gun-slinging days long ago. Will his conscience let him walk away from family, or will his heart overrule his head?

Setup and Excerpt from Comes An Outlaw – Keta Diablo

Coy Santos confronts the Torres brothers about theft of his cattle.

Benito and Domingo walked down the steps with Mutton Chop close on their heels. A black sombrero with silver trim sat atop Benito’s head. A black twill jacket topped a pair of brown vaquero pants and knee-high black boots. The only color in the man’s attire was a bright red patterned shirt, partially hidden by the ammo belt crisscrossed over his torso. Like his brother, Domingo wore dark vaquero pants and high black boots. He pulled the white straw hat from his head and tipped it in Coy’s direction, his pockmarked face revealing a toothy smile that crinkled his dark, beady eyes. A gold and red striped poncho covered his shoulders and chest but didn’t hide the pistol with an ivory handle at his right hip.

Benito spoke first. “Ah, amigo, been so long since we see you, we think you dead.”

“Not hardly.”

Digger hadn’t appeared and that bothered Coy, but he didn’t dare take his eyes off the threesome.

Domingo struck a match and lit the cigar hanging off this bottom lip. “To what do we owe this honor, gringo?”

He stiffened his legs and rose in the saddle, peering over their heads toward the corral. “Unless something is wrong with my eyesight, you got Santos cattle penned up over there.”

Mutton Chop let loose a throaty guffaw. “Maybe you need glasses.”

Coy patted the rifle lying across his lap. “Maybe you need a little buckshot in your leg.”

“Ha, now that’s funny! Guess you can’t count.” He glanced from Benito to Domingo. “There’s three of us and only one of you.”

Benito elbowed him. “Shut up, knucklehead.”

“Found ’em grazing on our land.” A circle of smoke swirled around Domingo’s long, black hair. “Round here possession is nine-tenths of the law.”

“Not when they’re wearing the Ranchero Santos’ brand.” His calm, lethal voice drifted on the air between them. “You, Mutton Chop, go open that padlock while I keep your sidekicks entertained.”

“Stay where you are.” Domingo spit into the dirt near his boot and then looked at Coy with a mutinous glare, his fingers inching toward his pistol. “As my friend says, gringo, there are three of us and only one of you.”

Coy raised the rifle and aimed at Domingo’s chest. “Yeah, guess I am a little outnumbered, but won’t make any difference to you or your brother. Two seconds after you draw your guns, you’ll both be dead.”

Benito’s eyes glinted beneath the harsh sun. “You think you can take us both?”

“I know I can. The question is…do you want to take that chance?”

Coy heard a rifle cock near the house, and next, a familiar voice near the corral. “Drop that rifle, Mister or I’ll blow your head off.”

Grange? What the hell is he doing here?

Standing behind Benito, Domingo and Mutton Chop, the boy walked forward with Fetch. Shoulders low, rump high, the dog crawled through the dirt, his long white fangs flashing feral. Rifle resting against his shoulder, Grange focused on someone on the roof. “Do it, Mister!”


To learn more about Keta’s books visit her Amazon author page:


Thank you for reading about Yuma Prison and its resident ghosts. The authors of The Good, The Bad and The Ghostly also thank you in advance for purchasing the anthology. We hope you enjoy reading the stories as much as we enjoyed writing them,

Best, Keta Diablo

4 responses to “Yuma Territorial Prison – The Dark Cell and Ghosts

  1. Interesting. I’ve never had occasion to read about the Yuma prison, so knew none of it’s history. I do have The Good, The Bad, and The Ghostly on my Kindle. It’s next in a long line. You both know how it is, I’m sure: So Many Books, So Little Time.”


  2. Hey Andi,

    I have visited the territorial prison several times as a child and I recently revisited it with my wife. It’s just not what I remember it being, maybe I was more fascinated as a kid or maybe I was distraught having to pay to get in now. Anyways, thanks for the write up and I’d still encourage anyone coming to Yuma to visit the territorial prison!

    Thanks and keep writing these great articles,


    • HI Ryan, thanks so much for stopping by and telling us that. I’m just wondering in what way it didn’t live up to your memory? I’d think they have to charge to maintain it. What, exactly, can you see there?


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