By Jon Gambrell
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Inmates carrying sawed-off shotguns once patrolled the grounds of Arkansas state prisons, keeping other prisoners in line with fear and intimidation. The few guards kept order with 5-foot-long leather straps and a device that sent an electric charge through an offender's toe and genitals.
Forty years ago, a federal judge declared Arkansas' prisons an unconstitutional "dark and evil world," and it took more than a decade for the system to break free of federal supervision. But a spate of recent allegations - including an inmate left naked and covered in his own feces for days who nearly died - have state officials studying a past they had hoped was behind them.
"We've got to stay on top of it because we don't want to get back into federal court on this one," said state Sen. Bobby Glover, who heads a panel overseeing the prison system. "We don't want our prison system being held unconstitutional."
No state official compares the prison system of today to what it once was. But in the past several months, several misconduct allegations have surfaced behind the gates. Investigators say guards at one facility received lap dances from a nurse while on the job. Two convicted murderers escaped by wearing handmade guard uniforms. Guards shot and killed a man who officials said had fled a contraband checkpoint.
Gov. Mike Beebe said he won't call for state prisons chief Larry Norris to be fired because he believes problems in Arkansas are similar to those in other states. Norris joined the state prison system in 1971 and became director in 1993. Beebe said through a spokesman that he has "full faith" in his ability to run the 15,000-inmate system.
The tortured past of Arkansas' prisons dates to the early 20th century. In 1933, the state closed its penitentiary in Little Rock and moved all the prisoners to the Cummins and Tucker prison farms, where privileged inmates guarded the others.
For the next 30 years, inmates died from killings and disease as gambling, alcohol and rape permeated the farms. Some prisoners reported being beaten at random by their inmate guards, while food - no matter how poor - remained in short supply.
One inmate often ate "cornbread and molasses for breakfast and a bowl of peas for lunch, and had had to 'skim the worms off of the top of the bowl before eating them,'" an Arkansas State Police report said.
By 1966, then-Gov. Orval Faubus ordered state police to investigate allegations of extortion, misuse of state property and inmate drunkenness. Severe riots broke out at Cummins. Two years later, human skeletons found at Cummins were alleged to have come from inmates beaten to death and secretly buried there.
"We have probably the most barbaric prison system in the United States," then-Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller said.
Bob Scott, Rockefeller's prison liaison, said the governor realized how bad the system had become during a visit to Cummins, when his bodyguard had to give up his pistol to a murderer he arrested 10 years earlier.
"You can control anything with fear," said Scott, now 75. "The attitude in Arkansas at the time was 'out of sight, out of mind - just don't bother us with the details.'"
U.S. District Judge J. Smith Henley took the first step toward reform in 1965, when he ordered guards to stop using corporal punishment. In 1969, he found portions of the state prison system unconstitutional, setting up his historic 1970 decision to put the entire state prison system under federal control - a first for the nation.
The prisons added school classes, increased the number of guards and improved facilities before coming out from underneath federal supervision in 13 years. Still, problems inside the prisons have persisted.
In 1995, state police revealed that a smuggling ring had brought drugs, weapons and alcohol onto death row. That same year, a federal judge ordered prison officials to place more guards at Cummins after an lawsuit claimed the state had violated inmates' rights by failing to adequately protect them from fellow prisoners.
An inmate escaped from Cummins in 1999 and killed a farmer and later another man in a traffic crash. A federal grand jury indicted former prison guards in 2001 for allegedly shocking three inmates on the testicles and elsewhere when they were disruptive.
In 2003, a Justice Department report said officials at two state prisons at Newport were "deliberately indifferent" to prison conditions and inmates with serious medical problems. In one case, an inmate who complained of chest pains after open-heart surgery "was given Tylenol and sent back to his housing unit."
Problems continued into 2007. Prison guards were fired for using excessive force against inmates, and other employees lost their jobs or resigned over a probe into bootleg computers that inmates at Tucker had built to watch pornographic films.
Scott said state prisons today are better than those four decades ago but likely still lag behind others in the nation.
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"Anytime you have men cooped up like animals, you're going to have problems," Scott said. "What taxpayers need to face up to is that prisons ought to be designed to make a person better having been there, not worse. The way they're designed now, it's very unusual for someone to come out better."