VI: Prison Reform
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CHAPTER VI Prison Reform ockefeller had scarcely moved from his election night headquarters to the governor's office before he was unceremoniously confronted with making a decision on a matter ofimpressive proportions: What to do about a lengthy state police report on brutality, extortion, murder, and sadism at the state prisons? This shocking report had been released prematurely by a Faubus aide. Rockefeller commented on the report at some length in his inaugural speech, pledging to improve the deplorable conditions immediately; but even he did not realize how bad the situation was. WR handed copies of the report, with some names deleted , to the press, urging newsmen to use judgment and good taste in their handling of the explosive information. The new governor then turned his attention to correcting the abuses, knowing that both his staunchest supporters and his enemies doubted that his efforts would be successful . An attitude that he would find shared by an alarming number of Arkansans was that criminals should be confined and forgotten, that whatever happened to them, no matter how brutal, was what theydeserved. He told the Arkansas Press Association that he found in the state "a lack of righteous indignation" on the part of the people. Prison abuses were apparently something the people had grown accustomed to. His predecessor, Rockefeller explained, was proud of the profit made at the prison farm. But such profits were invalidated, WR felt, by the system's failure to rehabilitate the criminals—a theory supported by the number of prisoners who returned to the R 102 The Arkansas Rockefeller penitentiary repeatedly. The people of Arkansas, like people everywhere, believed that wrongdoers should be punished, Rockefeller acknowledged; but he didn't think that they should equate punishment with persecution. Exemplifying the kind of political scheming that was rampant in dealings with the state's prison system is the following incident. Bob Scott, who served as the governor 's aide on prison matters for most of the Rockefeller years in office, was approached by a Hot Springs deputy sheriff early in 1967. The deputy outlined to Scott his interest in a particular inmate who was serving a life term for murdering his wife. Scott, whose methods of operation embraced the practice of tape-recording conversations, recorded the man's spiel about getting his friend out of prison. The deputy was prepared to make a $1,500 campaign contribution to Rockefeller's next race in exchange for the prisoner's freedom. Although the governor's aide declined to accept this bribe, the incident does reflect the atmosphere in which WR's efforts toward prison reform were set.1 Two days after Rockefeller released the report on brutality at the prisons, he announced that he had no desire to see the prisons become a political football. He said there would be no finger pointing, that he wanted to sit down with prison officials and see what could be done. In an address to the general assembly in special session,2 Rockefeller said: The people of Arkansas are scandalized by what they have recently learned about our penitentiary system.The solution is not an easy one. It involves,first,a definitionofthe system that we will have; second, it involves money; third, it involves sound planning. It is clear that the immediate investment will be substantial but with sound planning this need not be an excessive burden. By your actions at the last regular session, I believe you committed the people of Arkansas,once and for all, to a departure from the . . .archaic system ofrunning our penitentiaries. Prison Reform 103 By tripling the number of free-world employees and by accepting the need to improve the food and living conditions of the prisoners, you recognized that we are phasing out the old approach . . . . However, at this time, I think it is necessary that we recommit ourselves, irrevocably, to a program of reform and I, therefore, urge you to enact into law the bill calling for the creation ofa new Department of Corrections. If he had any doubts about the difficulties he would encounter in overturning an evil system where some prisoners exercised the power oflife and death over others, these doubts were dispelled by his first unannounced visit to the prisons early in his administration. The state police car in which he was riding was stopped at the gate by a convict guard. The governor was allowed to enter the prison only after the troopers had given their guns to the convict. "It's...


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