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Prison CP - February 1967

Corpun file 6648


Newsweek, New York, 20 February 1967


Down on the Farm


Armed convicts guarded the gates when Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller arrived to make his first inspection of the 4,500-acre Tucker Prison Farm last month. As Arkansas's new Republican executive watched in amazement, his state-police escort obediently handed over their weapons to the convict trusties. Only then was Rockefeller allowed to pass inside.

It would have been a bizarre incident almost anywhere else. But it was quite normal at Tucker, one of Arkansas's two self-supporting prison farms where trusties take the place of salaried guards, where whipping prisoners with 4-foot straps has been sanctioned by law and torturing them by electricity or old-fashioned pliers sanctioned by custom, and where sale of prison jobs, supplies and produce has been part of a system that Arkansans have long tolerated -- because it relieves them of the responsibility of supporting their prisons by taxes.

But changes in the most medieval of American prison systems seem on the way. Early this month, Rockefeller fired the superintendent at Tucker and three of his wardens. In his dismissal letter, Rockefeller told the superintendent: "I think it would be unwise for you and your family to remain at the farm overnight." Then, last week, the governor went on statewide TV and declared that he was acting to forestall "one of the most dramatic prison revolts in the history of Arkansas and possibly the nation." In addition, two legislative committees are preparing an investigation of state prison conditions, and the governor has ordered the state police to take over from the wardens at Tucker.

Until the state police began investigating last August, life at Tucker was a nightmare of random violence and hopelessness in a prison that -- except for trusties -- harbored only first offenders. There were no schools, no rehabilitation programs, certainly no social workers. A doctor did turn up once a week for sick call. But neither at Tucker, nor at any other place in a state prison system operated entirely by political appointees, was there a single trained penologist.


Everything was for sale at Tucker -- reports NEWSWEEK's Philip D. Carter -- from soft jobs inside the prison, to drugs, to a room above the superintendent's office, where -- for a charge of $50 -- prostitutes, or wives, could be entertained by inmates. Liquor, too, was easily obtainable. One inmate regularly drove to a liquor store in a nearby town in a prison tractor, while he was supposed to be checking the skunk traps.

Phone Call: But sadism set the tone at Tucker. Men were beaten by wardens, by trusties, by one another. In the fields, whippings were regular and almost maniacally brutal. For overlooking some cucumbers he was supposed to pick, one inmate said he received 30 lashes on his bare buttocks. .... Youthful inmates were beaten if they refused the advances of homosexual trusties. As punishment, or to force information from inmates, men were sometimes tortured with pliers, with hypodermic needles driven under fingernails and with the infamous "Tucker Telephone" -- a battery-powered modification of a crank telephone with electrodes attached to the prisoners' toes and genitals. The device was put together by a former "inmate doctor" and usually administered in the prison hospital.

Changing Arkansas's penal system will cost money -- great tax-eating amounts of it -- and no one, least of all Arkansans, can be sure how long the winds of reform will blow fair through Little Rock. Many Arkansans are the sort of fundamentalists who believe fleshly sin deserves fleshly punishment. Many state officials have remained unmoved by the appalling disclosures. At a recent State Penitentiary Board meeting, the beating of prisoners was discussed, and a majority argued for continued use of the strap. At the same meting, however, the board vetoed a proposal for branding Tucker Farm cattle. Such treatment, they felt, would be "inhumane."

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