Is Yuma Territorial Prison Haunted?

Yuma Territorial Prison

This former old west prison reportedly still holds restless specters in its cells

Yuma Territorial Prison
Paranormal Reports

  • Angry spirits are said to haunt the Dark Cell area and scare visitors away
  • A girl in a red dress is seen roaming the complex and pinching visitors who also wear red
  • Poltergeist-like activity is reported throughout the complex
  • A former prisoner, John Ryan, is said to haunt Cell 14 where he died
  • Coins are reportedly thrown from the gift shop cash registers

Yuma Territorial Prison Haunted History

The land around the remnants of Arizona’s Yuma Territorial Prison has a long and storied past, far preceding even the historic prison. In 1540, the site was visited by Vazquez de Coronado and his explorers as they searched in vain for the mythical Seven Cities of Gold.

But the Seven Cities of Gold aren’t the only mythical thing about this site – the spirits of centuries of bloodshed are said to reside here, too.

Yuma Territorial Prison

Timeline of Yuma Territorial Prison's History

Swipe or use timeline points to see Yuma Territorial Prison through the years


Over a century after de Coronado, Spanish missionary Padre Eusebino Kino staked out the site as a location for a future mission. Though it wasn’t finished in his lifetime, Mission Puerto de Purisima Concepcion was built on the site in 1780 by Padre Francisco Garces. Unfortunately for Padre Garces, the nearby Quechan tribe of Native Americans sacked the mission in July of 1781. For the next hundred years, the land stayed dormant, but it would soon be engaged by another type of mission: the mission of American Manifest Destiny.


As the Oregon Trail and numerous gold rushes made the American west more accessible and more appealing, settlers poured into the wild west hoping to stake their claims. When the Colorado River had a gold rush of its own, the area’s population exploded, and the settlement of Yuma was born. It wasn’t long before the expanding town needed a prison to help keep peace, and ground was broken on April 28, 1876, for what would become Yuma Territorial Prison.


Over the next 33 years, over 3,000 prisoners passed through Yuma Territorial Prison. While most of the prisoners during this time were men, 29 women spent time in lock up at Yuma as well. But, rapid expansion in the region soon brought a swift end to Yuma Territorial Prison. In 1909, the prison was forced to close due to intense overcrowding, with the prison populace moving to the new Arizona State Prison Complex – Florence, which continues to operate to this day. But, Yuma Territorial wasn’t done with the wild west just yet.


Shortly after the prison closed, tragedy struck the city of Yuma, when Yuma High School burned to the ground. Without a replacement structure, the students and faculty moved into Yuma Territorial Prison, where they stayed from 1910 – 1914. During that time, the school sports teams came to be known as the “Yuma Criminals,” a mascot the Yuma Union High School still uses today.


After the new school was built, Yuma Territorial Prison continued to be used, but this time as a county hospital annex. A longer-term tenant was found in 1931, when the Veterans of Foreign Wars established their clubhouse at the site, where it remained until 1960. Finally, the Yuma Territorial Prison grounds were acquired to be revived as a historical state park. The Yuma Territorial Prison State Park opened on January 1, 1961, and continues to host countless tourists every year.

Yuma Territorial Prison Ghost Encounters

With a history that long, it’s no surprise that Yuma Territorial soon became the subject of countless myths and legends, including those paranormal in nature.

One of the most popular ghost legends of Yuma Territorial Prison is that of the ‘dark cell,’ an old-world name for solitary confinement. Yuma Territorial’s dark cell was a unique type of torture: prisoners would be chained where they stood in a pitch black jail cell and left for long periods of time.

While locked in the dark cell, prisoners would have fluorescing scorpions thrown at them by guards. Now, many people claim angry or protective spirits keep visitors away from the dangerous dark cells by scaring them and yelling, “Get out!” But, that’s far from the only ghost story to come from Yuma Territorial.

Yuma Territorial Prison’s Red Phantom

Another popular local legend is that of a girl in a red dress, who was said to live in the region before the prison was built. Legend has it that she accidentally fell into the nearby Colorado River and drowned.

Now visitors often report her ghost around the prison. She is even said to pinch anyone else there who is wearing her particular shade of red.

Playful Poltergeists at Yuma Territorial Prison

Another spirit reported is that of John Ryan, who was imprisoned for ‘crimes against nature’ in 1900 and reportedly committed suicide in Cell 14, the cell his spirit is now said to haunt.

Poltergeist-like activity is also reported throughout the complex, even in the gift shop, where spirits have been known to toss coins out of the cash registers.

Yuma Territorial Prison’s
Paranormal Fame

Over the years, Yuma Territorial’s long history and numerous ghost stories have made it one of the most popular haunted locations in the American Southwest. The prison and its hauntings have been featured on multiple popular paranormal shows, including Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures and the Buzzfeed Unsolved web series, and the prison was voted the ‘Best Haunted Destination’ in the US by a panel of USA Today voters in 2019.

Today, Yuma Territorial is an active state park that greets, educates, and entertains throngs of visitors every year, and one of them could be you. And, if you happen to feel a pinch during your tour, maybe it was the pinch of one of the fluorescent scorpions, or maybe you just decided to wear red on your visit to Yuma Territorial Prison.