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Spring 2009 Issue

From Behind Bars: The Arkansas Department of Correction


The prison rodeo was held at Cummins Prison from 1972 to 1984

Last summer, the Arkansas Department of Correction donated their collection of artifacts and archival materials to the Old State House Museum. The collection is a remarkable inventory of historical objects that tell the story of Arkansas’s prisons. The state’s prison system began in 1838, with a commitment to the fair treatment and rehabilitation of prisoners. However, problems with inmate control and a lack of state funding forced Arkansas to adopt a prison lease system in 1847. This system alleviated much of the state’s administrative and funding difficulties but invited harsh abuse of prisoners by leasing agents. Governor George Donaghey, a strong advocate of reform, succeeded in breaking up the lease system in 1912, but the state’s use of trusties to maintain authority over inmates and its insistence on a self-sufficient operation meant prisoners’ living and working conditions only marginally improved. Facilities remained poor, food and medical care substandard, and abuse common until Governor Winthrop Rockefeller’s reform efforts ultimately led to a federal court’s declaration that the prison system was unconstitutional in 1970. Today, the Arkansas Department of Correction is accredited by the American Correctional Association and oversees a modern, safe, and humane correctional system that includes medical care, educational programs, substance abuse treatment, boot camp and work release programs.

A variety of artifacts from the Department of Correction’s collection is included in the new Badges, Bandits and Bars exhibit, but the depth of the collection goes far beyond what can be shown in any single exhibit. The collection will also serve as the basis for a traveling exhibit. Containing over 500 historical objects, documents and photographs, some of the highlights include: an extensive collection of brozine (prison currency) and coupons used by prisoners to purchase commissary items, a leather strap once used for the punishment of inmates, a large assortment of confiscated weapons and drug paraphernalia, the infamous “Tucker Telephone” torture device, and Tucker Prison’s two electric chairs, “Sparky I” and “Sparky II.” Other interesting artifacts include a camera used to take mug shots of prisoners, items from the prison rodeo, and a confiscated still. These artifacts in the Department of Correction collection provide physical links to the legacy of our prison system and the significance it holds as part of the state’s history.

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Spring 2009 Issue