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The Arkansas prison scandal 

In the 1960s, Tom Murton attempted to reform Cummins prison farm, but lost his job after unearthing three skeletons on the grounds.

By Colin Woodward

Fifty years ago, on Jan. 29, 1968, Arkansas prison superintendent Tom Murton, with members of the press on hand, unearthed three skeletons buried at Cummins prison farm, located along the Arkansas River in Lincoln County. Murton, who had heard rumors of men buried near the levee, believed the decayed bones were those of prisoners murdered and dumped on the prison's 16,000-acre grounds.

click to enlarge TOM MURTON: He got national attention and upset Governor Rockefeller when he said bodies he dug up on the grounds of Cummins prison were murdered inmates.
  • TOM MURTON: He got national attention and upset Governor Rockefeller when he said bodies he dug up on the grounds of Cummins prison were murdered inmates.

Murton's discovery of "Bodiesburg," as it became known, made international news, embarrassed Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller and infuriated conservative politicians. It also led to Murton's firing and banishment from the field of prison management. His act of "grave robbery," as some put it, led to an investigation, inspired a major Hollywood movie and became one of the most infamous moments in Arkansas history. But what exactly did Murton find, and how did it affect prison reform?

For most of the 20th century, the Arkansas prison system, as one judge wrote in 1970, was a "dark and evil world." When Rockefeller became governor in January 1967, he placed prison reform at the top of his reform agenda. In his inaugural address, he said Arkansas had the worst penitentiary in the country, and he called for "clearing up deplorable conditions within our prisons, our probation and parole systems." At the time, Arkansas had only two male prisons. Cummins — the biggest — contained white and black adult inmates. Tucker, which was much smaller, housed only white prisoners, most of whom were under 30 years old. The third unit was the tiny women's reformatory, located on the grounds at Cummins. Few women were incarcerated there, though some were serving time for offenses such as excessive drinking.

Cummins and Tucker were working farms, modeled after the plantations of the Old South. Men toiled for no money, and the prisons were run for profit (some years they made money, others they didn't). Altogether, there were fewer than 1,500 people in the Arkansas prison system, roughly one-tenth of the present-day number.

What the prisons lacked in numbers, however, they made up for in cruelty. Shortly before Rockefeller entered office, Gov. Orval Faubus had begun a State Police investigation that uncovered systematic corruption and brutality at Tucker farm, where inmates and prison officials alike engaged in torture, beatings and bribery. Most notorious among the police findings was the "Tucker Telephone," an old- fashioned crank phone found in a shoebox in the warden's home at Tucker. The device was used to torture inmates by attaching a wire to a prisoner's genitals. A particularly unfortunate inmate got a "long distance call" that sent electricity searing through his body. The experience was agonizing.

In 1967, Arkansas was one of only three states — along with Louisiana and Mississippi — that still used the trusty system, whereby inmates themselves ran the prisons. Trusties were men you supposedly could trust, and to save money, politicians let inmates decide how the racially segregated barracks were run and how best to manage the crops growing on some of the nation's best farm land. Prisoners worked as guards, checked in new inmates, issued mail, cooked food, raised livestock and provided medical care.

Under the blazing Delta sun, long-line riders armed with pistols, rifles and shotguns patrolled the grounds on horseback while rank men worked fields full of cotton, rice, soybeans and cucumbers. Men who didn't work hard were punished like slaves. Should a rider shoot a man trying to escape, he was given a free pass out of the prison. A long leather strap was another instrument of terror. Because men were housed in barracks, rather than cells, they had little protection at night against roaming thieves and sexual predators.

click to enlarge TANTAMOUNT TO SLAVERY: Arkansas prisoners working in the fields, with trusties as guards.
  • TANTAMOUNT TO SLAVERY: Arkansas prisoners working in the fields, with trusties as guards.

"Freeworld" employees were few in number at Tucker and Cummins. Wardens and superintendents ruled the prisons like plantations, where workers were always mindful of who was boss, while at the same time given surprising latitude. Trusties developed a hierarchy that had trusties at the top; do-pops (pronounced "doh" pops, so-called because they popped doors open for trusties) below them; and rank men at the bottom. Before 1967, few people knew the misery of daily life at Tucker and Cummins.

Murton was thrust into the maelstrom, but he was up to the challenge. He was a penologist from California who was working on a doctoral degree in criminology at the University of California Berkeley when Rockefeller hired him. He was the first penologist ever to work at an Arkansas prison. Previously, Murton had worked in Alaska (where he was fired for giving controversial testimony about prisons there) and taught college in Illinois. The governor's decision to hire him represented a break from the "old boy" system that had dominated Arkansas politics before then.

In early 1967, Murton began his work at Tucker. He soon realized he could not take anything for granted at the prison: At one point, he wrote a memo to inmates asking that they not defecate on the floor. Murton's task seemed impossible, but over time he made progress. In addition to cleaning up sanitation, he abolished the use of the strap as punishment (banned by law but still used), bettered the men's diet, cracked down on bribery and combated the problem of sexual assaults. Most important of all, Murton gained the trust of inmates. Murton had a blue-collar approach to reform. Clad in a work shirt and jeans, he believed in dealing with inmates honestly and in a straightforward manner. Murton had no illusions about who was running the prisons: It was the inmates. When confronted with the problem of disarming trusties, for example, he simply asked them to hand over their weapons. They did.

Murton encountered the systematic abuses, violence and corruption at Tucker that the State Police had discovered in its 1966 report. But just as important as cleaning up the prisons for Murton was the task of changing people's minds about what a modern penitentiary should be. Arkansans thought of the prisons as a dumping ground for criminals, nothing more. Men were supposed to do their time and help the prisons pay their way. Murton saw a total absence of rehabilitation efforts, education programs or vocational training. Murton defined reform as "a program that would enable [inmates] to survive with some dignity as human beings while they served their sentences." Reform, Murton believed, was a constant irritant to the system, and his sarcastic sense of humor, unorthodox methods and sometimes abrasiveness brought him into conflict with administrators and politicians.

In one year, Murton made improvements large and small at Tucker. In addition to defanging the trusty system, he let death row inmates paint their dreary cells and even started a prison band. When O.E. Bishop, superintendent of Cummins, retired in December 1967, Murton got his job. But Murton wanted to manage the entire state prison system, and he was under the impression that Rockefeller was going to put him in charge. In January 1968, Murton started work at Cummins, but his tenure at the state's largest prison proved short-lived. A few weeks after beginning his job, he decided to make a dramatic move in the name of prison reform. An inmate informer named Reuben Johnson told him that there were bodies buried on the grounds at Cummins (within site of the guard towers). Murton had dug for bodies at Tucker but had had no luck finding anything. But with Johnson's help, Murton's diggers exhumed three skeletons. As shocking as the discovery was, Murton thought there might be as many as 200 bodies buried on the grounds. He wanted his men to keep digging.

With media on hand as Murton dug, the discovery of skeletons generated instant national headlines. Murton was convinced the skeletons were of murdered men. Others weren't so sure. Dr. Rodney F. Carlton, the first state medical examiner in Arkansas history, tried to determine who the skeletons were in life and how they died. Carlton discounted much of Reuben Johnson's information; however, he did not rule out that the remains were those of prisoners. In the meantime, Carlton advised officials to have a pathologist on hand if more bodies were discovered.

No more bodies were ever dug up at Cummins. And yet, Murton's grisly discovery put Arkansas's prisons in an ugly national, even international, spotlight. London papers The Times and Economist as well as the Bunte of Munich picked up the story. Cummins elicited uncomfortable comparisons to not only Southern plantations, but the concentration camps of World War II. In short, Murton had created for Rockefeller a public relations nightmare. In the face of a media storm, Rockefeller ordered Murton to stop digging.

click to enlarge THE BARRACKS AT CUMMINS: In the late 1970s.
  • THE BARRACKS AT CUMMINS: In the late 1970s.

The issue turned into a legal and political battle. Murton said he had had permission from Rockefeller aides to dig up bodies. The Rockefeller administration denied having done so. Murton refused to back down from his claims that he had found the bodies of murdered men. Critics said he had found nothing more than a pauper's grave that had been there for decades.

Any rational person might have reasoned that in the nearly 70 years Cummins had operated under prisoner management, many men had died, whether violently or not. Obviously they had to have been buried somewhere, and it was likely prisoners would not have chosen to bury them far from where the men died. In the wait for a definite answer on the origin of the skeletons, Rockefeller did not want Murton to discover more. It was an election year, and Rockefeller didn't want to lose control of prison reform.

Murton's fate was in the hands of the Board of Corrections, who had the power to fire prison officials. Murton wanted to stay at Cummins, where he could continue his reform efforts. But he had become a liability, and even his defenders saw that he was his own worst enemy. Few doubted Murton's brilliance, earnestness and energy. What he lacked was diplomacy.

The Board of Corrections fired Murton on March 7, 1968. The next day, Rockefeller held a press conference in which he called Murton a "loner," adding that "when you work in government you cannot work as a loner." Rockefeller said he "regretted a great deal when Tom Murton parted ways with Arkansas." But Murton did not "part ways." The Board of Corrections not only fired him, it ordered him to leave Cummins immediately. "Noise isn't everything," Rockefeller said of Murton at the press conference. "Action is the thing that is important." It was Murton's actions, though, that had landed him in trouble. Murton was too willing to act on his own authority, and that made him a political threat that Rockefeller could not tolerate.

Murton never worked in prisons again. Rockefeller praised Murton's replacement, Victor Urban, who had traveled with Murton from California to help with the prisons. In May 1968, the Arkansas Criminal Investigation Division issued a report on the skeletons. Murton, not surprisingly, was critical of it, which he saw as sloppy and lacking professional rigor. Rockefeller called it a "mishmash of information" that he could not act upon.

Victor Urban didn't last long, either. In October 1968, Cummins again entered national headlines when guards shot at scores of inmates who were protesting prison conditions. No men were killed in the shooting, but 24 were wounded. Associate Superintendent Gary Haydis, who had previously worked in California and had ordered the shooting, was charged with civil rights violations by a federal court, though he was later acquitted.

click to enlarge BOB SARVER: Murton's replacement responded "What else is new?" when senators asked him about homosexuality, bribes and corruption in 
Arkansas prisons.
  • BOB SARVER: Murton's replacement responded "What else is new?" when senators asked him about homosexuality, bribes and corruption in Arkansas prisons.

In November 1968, Rockefeller appointed Bob Sarver as the first head of the Department of Correction. By then, Rockefeller had won a second term as governor. To win re-election, he had not taken any chances, going so far as to enlist the support of Johnny Cash, who played at a handful of Rockefeller rallies. Sarver had worked in prisons at West Virginia before moving to Arkansas, where he faced the task of not only running the penitentiary, but fighting the public relations war that Murton had intensified.

Murton had his revenge on Rockefeller and his administration. In 1969, he published "Accomplices to the Crime: The Arkansas Prison Scandal," which he co-wrote with Hollywood writer Joe Hyams. The book was a detailed and scathing indictment of Rockefeller, state officials and the enemies of prison reform. Murton showed how he received more cooperation from prisoners themselves — including a dubious but likeable murderer called "Chainsaw Jack" — than Rockefeller and state officials. Murton's book argued that reform had to come from the inside out: Prison directors had to work with inmates honestly to better the system. Change could not come from the top down.

Murton's book sold well, though it had few fans among Arkansans. In addition to writing a best seller, Murton testified in 1969 before the U.S. Senate committee on juvenile delinquency. Arkansas at the time had no age limit for inmates — thus, boys as young as 14 could be thrown in with adult, hardened criminals. Before the Senate, Murton drew similarities between the modern-day prisons in Arkansas and the slave plantations. "While slavery was officially abolished in the South over a century ago," Murton said, "landholders quickly looked to the prisons for a cheap source of labor." Murton again recounted the beatings at Arkansas's prisons, the buried bodies and the public indifference toward them.

Sarver, too, testified before the Senate. He, however, fared worse than Murton did before the committee. Sarver was dismissive of the stories of homosexuality, bribes, escapes and corruption, saying, "What else is new?" Sen. Thomas J. Dodd (D-Conn.), who was serving on the committee, was surprised at Sarver's dismissiveness of prison abuses. At the same time, Sarver rejected the notion, put forth by Murton, that the same "headcrackers" were in charge at the prisons — that nothing had changed.

Murton persisted in telling his story, and whatever his accomplishments in reforming the prison, he was skilled at using the media to help him. In 1970, he appeared on TV's popular "Dick Cavett Show," where he again recounted tales of corruption and brutality at the prisons. He had Cavett convinced that there were many more bodies buried at Cummins. Sarver also appeared on the show to answer Murton's accusations. And though Sarver defended his and the Rockefeller administration's record, he did not try to discredit Murton. In fact, he said Murton was fired because he was "too honest."

Bad news for Arkansas kept coming. In February 1970, federal Judge J. Smith Henley ruled in the second of two decisions in the landmark Holt v. Sarver case (Holt was attorney Lawrence J. "Jack" Holt) that the Arkansas prison system was unconstitutional. The prison, he ruled, violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against "cruel and unusual punishment" and the 14th Amendment's right to equal protection. Henley called the prisons a "dark and evil world completely alien to the free world ... administered by criminals under unwritten rules and customs completely foreign to free world culture." The Sarver decision, the Harvard Law Review noted, was the first where "an entire prison system faces possible abolition on constitutional grounds." The state's lawyers appealed the decision, but it would be more than a decade before the prisons were again deemed constitutional.

The Holt v. Sarver decision seemed to vindicate Murton. But unable to find a job in the prisons, Murton settled into academic jobs. He spent most of the 1970s at the University of Minnesota. In 1971, Murton was interviewed by Playboy magazine. In the interview, he had another opportunity to articulate his vision of American prisons and the need to reduce recidivism. The next year, he published "Inside Prison, U.S.A.," which was "Accomplices to the Crime" under a different title.

But what about the Cummins skeletons? In April 1972, the Arkansas Gazette reported that Dr. Clyde C. Snow, a friend of medical examiner Carlton and a forensic anthropologist with the Civil Aeromedical Institute of Oklahoma City, said he had studied the Cummins skeletons for a year. Snow could only theorize about who the men were and how and when they had died. Given the age of the bodies, they were likely inmates who had been buried generations before they were dug up. Snow said he could not determine what exactly the nature of the cemetery was based on only three skeletons, but he kept working on the skeleton mystery. In 1976, at a meeting of the Arkansas Historical Association in Helena, Snow gave a paper in which he challenged the idea that the bodies unearthed at Cummins had been murdered. Snow, however, never published his findings. The mystery continued.

In 1980, the film "Brubaker" was released. The movie starred Robert Redford as an Ohio prison reformer, a role based on Murton, who worked as a historical consultant to the film. Murton made no money from the movie, but it was profitable, garnered positive reviews and earned an Oscar nomination for best screenplay. In Arkansas, the film's release again brought up the unpleasant 1968 scandal. The states were still struggling to achieve compliance with the Holt v. Sarver decision.

In 1982, after a 10-year struggle, the Arkansas penitentiary became compliant with federal standards. Murton kept writing about the prisons and Arkansas, and with typical sarcasm. In 1985, he published the short book "Crime and Punishment in Arkansas: Adventures in Wonderland." Murton died in 1990 in a small town in central Oklahoma. After his death, the journal "Social Justice" memorialized Murton as a "longstanding penal reformer who was never given enough of a chance to implement his bold ideas." Since Murton's death, Arkansas's prison population has exploded, now numbering around 18,000 inmates. Conditions have improved dramatically since Murton's time (in 1996, Cummins was certified by the American Correctional Association), but the prison industrial complex has its own problems, about which Murton no doubt would have an opinion were he alive today.

So, who exactly were the men that Murton dug up in January 1968, and how exactly did they die? We will never know. What is certain is that were Cummins abandoned tomorrow, it would provide ample study for anthropologists and archeologists. As it stands, "Bodiesburg" will remain one of the darkest chapters in the history of the Arkansas prison system. It's a story many Arkansans remember and some still don't like hearing told.

Colin Woodward is the author of "Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War," published in 2014. A former Arkansas resident, he is writing a book on Johnny Cash and has been researching and writing about the Arkansas prison farms for six years.


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