To most people outside penitentiary walls, the term prison reform is a meaningless abstraction. Only when the particular problems of a particular prison break into the open is there public pressure for correction. Such was the case in Arkansas last week. For years, Arkansas legislators have been referring to their two large convict farms as a "model system." The farms turned in a handsome profit that averaged about $1,400,000 over the years from the sale of farm products, and few prisoners ever seemed to escape. But the realities of prison life in Arkansas were far removed from the comfortable assumption. The point was brought home painfully when three skeletons, one decapitated, one with its skull crushed, the third with its legs broken back, were unearthed from shallow, unmarked graves in a field of the state's Cummins prison farm.
It was not the first hint of brutality and murder at the farms. Shortly after Governor Winthrop Rockefeller took office in 1967, he released a 67-page state-police prison report, ordered and then suppressed by former Governor Orval Faubus, that painted a picture of hell in Arkansas. To maintain discipline, prisoners were beaten with leather straps, blackjacks, hoses. Needles were shoved under their fingernails, and cigarettes were applied to their bodies. For the truly unregenerate, there was the "Tucker telephone," a form of electric-shock torture used by James Bruton, former superintendent of the Tucker prison farm. A prisoner was strapped to a table. Wires leading from an old-fashioned crank telephone were attached to one of his big toes and to his genitals. The crank was spun, and the victim got a series of electric shocks.
Grotesque Practices. When Thomas Murton, Rockefeller's 39-year-old reform appointee to the prison superintendent's job, took over early in 1967, enforced homosexuality and traffic in liquor and narcotics were rampant at Tucker and the Cummins prison farm.
Trusties, armed with shotguns, were squeezing weekly payoffs out of the "rankmen," or ordinary inmates, who worked under their supervision. Often the trusties, who lived in unlocked TV-and-refrigerator-equipped shacks, fired rifles inches over rankmen's heads simply for sport. Murton quickly abolished many of the grotesque practices, but he was troubled by continuing rumors that prisoners had been murdered and buried on the prison grounds. Last week Murton ordered digging started in a treeless pasture at Cummins. Led to the site, which contained between 15 and 25 unexplained earth depressions, by strapping, 59-year-old Inmate Reuben Johnson, the workmen uncovered the three skeletons.
Murder for Money. Johnson, who has spent some 30 years on the farms for murder and robbery, identified one of the skeletons as Jake Jackson, a Negro whom he had helped bury on Christmas Eve, 1946. Prison records indicated that Jackson had "escaped" two days later. Around Labor Day in 1940, he said, "they killed a bunch of themI'd say about 20." Asked why the men had been murdered, Johnson said: "For money. You need money to make it here." Often he had to pay $2 or $3 a week for protection himself.