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Arkansas State Penitentiary Records

Identifier: MC 495

Scope and Content Note

Materials consist primarily of written records, including correspondence, reports, bank statements and deposit slips, and pamphlets. The collection also contains three photographs and a broadside.

Materials pertain to the daily workings of the penitentiary system, including prisoner records; financial records; and agricultural materials, especially dairy and cotton farming records. Additional agricultural records may be found in the files of the penitentiary's business manager, Eugene Nunn, and Clay Smith. Records pertain to activities at Tucker and Cummins prison farms as well as the women's reformatory. The collection includes a copy of the controversial report resulting from the investigation of Tucker Prison Farm in 1966. Additional materials pertain to the Arkansas Tuberculosis Sanatorium and the Arkansas State Hospital. General materials include an undated anti-Semitic leaflet with text attributed to Benjamin Franklin.


  • Creation: 1910-2013


Access Information

Please call (479) 575-8444 or email at least two weeks in advance of your arrival to ensure availability of the materials.

Use Information

Medical records restricted for 100 years from date of creation. Other restricted materials are restricted for 75 years from date of creation.

No Interlibrary Loan.

Standard Federal Copyright Laws Apply (U.S. Title 17).

Biographical Note

The Arkansas State Penitentiary Records consist of "dead" files that were to be discarded from the offices of Cummins State Prison Farm. They were saved from the trash bin by Thomas O. Murton, the head of the Arkansas state penitentiary system in 1967 and early 1968.

The Arkansas General Assembly passed legislation establishing a central state prison in 1839. Convict leasing, a practice whereby prisoners were forced to work for private farms and businesses, formed a profitable way to manage the prison's inmates. The system allowed the state to transfer the burden of housing and disciplining prisoners to private entities, while the state received lucrative fees for the convicts' service. With the end of slavery, convict leasing became a popular way to supply cheap laborers, who were often African-American and suffered under harsh, slave-like conditions. Concerned by prison abuses, Progressive Governor George Donaghey, pardoned 360 prisoners when he left office in 1913. The pardons deprived the system of convict laborers, effectively ending the system.

Though the convict leasing system had been effectively abolished, state prison inmates continued to suffer from harsh treatment,especially at the hands of prison trusties, privileged inmates who served as prison guards. Furthermore, prisoners were compelled to work in the cotton fields at prison farms. In the early twentieth century Cummins State Prison Farm and Tucker State Prison Farm became the core institutions of the state penitentiary system and the locations of its lucrative agricultural enterprises. Prisoners were physically abused, especially at the hands of prison trusties, privileged inmates who served as prison guards. Furthermore, prisoners were compelled to work in the prison farms' cotton fields. Cummins Plantation in Lincoln County, acquired by the state in 1902, became the penal institution for African-American inmates. White prisoners were interred at Tucker farm, acquired in 1916 and located in Jefferson County.

Because of continued rumors of severe treatment of prisoners, in the mid-1960s Governor Orval Faubus commissioned an investigation of prison conditions at Tucker and Cummins farms. The report revealed appalling conditions, with prison rapes and violence common; prisoners forced to eat substandard food while the farms produced high quality crops; beatings of prisoners by the trusties; and general unsanitary conditions. With Arkansas still reeling from the bad press resulting from the Little Rock Central High School desegregation crisis a decade earlier, Faubus decided to prevent another embarrassing scandal and suppressed the report. But when Winthrop Rockefeller became Arkansas's new governor in 1967, the report was released, garnering the negative national attention that Faubus had feared. With a stellar reputation for prison reform, Murton was hired to fix Arkansas's corrupt prison system.

Murton was born on March 15, 1928, the son of E.T. Murton and Bessie Stevens. His education included a bachelors degree in animal husbandry from the University of Oklahoma and a Master's of Arts degree in criminology from the University of California in Berkeley. After his tenure as head of Arkansas's penitentiary system he completed his Ph.D. in criminology at Berkeley. His marriage to Margaret E. Conway produced four children. Before his arrival in Arkansas he played an instrumental role in the creation of Alaska's penitentiary system. He also taught penology at Southern Illinois University.

Murton approached his new position with zeal, as he sought to create more sanitary conditions, end corporal punishment of prisoners, and bring prison rapes and other violence under control. Among his own investigations he discovered a large number of unmarked graves, which he alleged contained the corpses of murdered prisoners. Although later reports claimed the graves were part of a prison paupers' graveyard, Murton persisted with his claims. But the Rockefeller administration, dealing with the negative press resulting from the prison report, became impatient with the outrageous allegations of the would-be reformer. As a result, Murton was dismissed after eleven months on the job, after which he left Arkansas.

Murton's efforts at reform failed. However, the year after he was fired, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, Pine Bluff Division, heard the case of Holt v. Sarver. The court ruled that the inhumane conditions violated the Eight and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. The Arkansas state penal system was effectively ruled unconstitutional, paving the way for real prison reforms.

After leaving Arkansas Murton teamed with co-author Joe Hyams to write the book Accomplices to the Crime: The Arkansas Prison Scandal (1970), detailing the abuses he had discovered at Cummins and Tucker farms. The book served as the basis for the movie Brubaker (1980), starring Robert Redford. From 1971-1979 Murton taught at the University of Minnesota. In 1980 he moved to his mother's farm near Deer Creek, Oklahoma. He wrote a second book, The Dilemma of Prison Reform, published in 1982. He died in Oklahoma City on October 10, 1990.


9 Linear Feet (9 boxes)

Language of Materials


Arrangement of the Papers

Materials are arranged by kind of material: Correspondence; Staff Records; Photographs; Legal-Size Records; Oversize Materials.

Acquisition Information

The Arkansas State Penitentiary Records were donated to the Special Collections Department, University of Arkansas Libraries, in 1984, by Tom Murton of Deer Creek, Oklahoma.

Processing Information

Processed by Todd E. Lewis; completed in September 2013.

Arkansas State Penitentiary Records
Todd E. Lewis
September 2013
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Finding Aid is written in English.

Repository Details

Part of the Special Collections Department Repository

University of Arkansas Libraries
365 N. McIlroy Avenue
Fayetteville AR 72701 United States
(479) 575-8444