Category Archives: Prison Farms

Prison Reform Represents Good Government, Not Partisan Politics

Looking beyond any sort of moral issue one has towards mass incarceration, I’ve always wondered how the most conservative of lawmakers could align their “more beds, more prisoners” mentality with their fiscal principles. Richard A. Viguerie made his case for why conservatives should back the reform of incarceration in the United States in a recent op-ed post for the New York Times. Interestingly, Viguerie makes a case that prison reform has more to do with fiscal matters. Reforming prisons should also be about compassion. Compassion for prisoners and their families. Many conservative political ideologies, including support of the death penalty and mandatory life sentences without parole, do not give an air of compassion.

These three principles — public safety, compassion and controlled government spending — lie at the core of conservative philosophy. Politically speaking, conservatives will have more credibility than liberals in addressing prison reform.

I will be the first to say that liberals need to do more to help change the carceral situation in the United States. I don’t think, however, that it’s fair to give conservatives the higher moral ground in prison reform. Simply quoting a dip in incarceration rates during Reagan’s presidency doesn’t give any credence to that idea. Especially considering President Reagan’s “War on Drugs” slowly became responsible for filling up prisons like no other governmental-backed program in our nation’s history. Just because it took time after his eight years in the White House for this so-called War to gain steam doesn’t give conservatives a claim a moral victory. This problem goes beyond political ideology and party.

I think at the end of the day, there are more than fiscal issues that lead conservatives, who are by and large God-fearing Republicans, to support mass incarceration. When the federal courts began examining southern prison systems in the 1960s and declaring them unconstitutional, judges had the nearly impossible task of dealing with state legislatures who never had to allocate budget to state prisons. Legislators wondered why money should be diverted from law-abiding citizens when the pseudo-plantation prison farm supported itself? In addition, though many have much to gain in the increase in the prison industrial complex of the twenty-first century, I believe there’s more of a biblical reason behind incarceration. Repenting for sins. Keeping law-abiding society safe. People who rape and kill not only offend society, but they offend God. I believe at the end of the day, when a member of the Christian right has to choose between progressive reforms of prisons, which would save money and put less people in jail, and incarcerating criminals, the later will usually win. While we may not have a state established religion, it’s simply too hard for some to differentiate their religious beliefs from government.

Though, I do applaud outfits like Right on Crime in at least opening up a dialog on an issue that many conservatives have avoided for decades. Unfortunately, even with concerted political effort, reform of the system will take decades.

Read letters to the editor responding to the original op-ed post here.

The Tucker Telephone: Prison Abuse, Arkansas Style

Prison farms in the 1960s American South could easily be mistaken for the 1860s. Killing two birds with one stone, after Reconstruction southern legislatures purchased unused plantation land and placed inmates on this land to farm antebellum style. Not only did this provide new prisons to replace those destroyed after the Civil War, but it also allowed these states to reap in the profits from prison agriculture. Sadly, it did not take long for these prisons to resemble slave plantations of old. Southern legislators did not care much about the abuses at these prisons, especially since they supported themselves financially. Prisoners, especially black prisoners, did not deserve much attention from law-abiding white citizens, according to these lawmen. If these prisons re-introduced those paternalistic notions of the white planter classes before the Civil War, even better.

Photo courtesy of Cara Joy Clausen.

Photo courtesy of Cara Joy Clausen.

I am going to talk about these southern prison farms quite often in this blog, for it is my research specialty. Let’s look at the Cummins and Tucker Prison Farms in Arkansas. In particular, we will examine one torture implement: the Tucker Telephone. This large wooden box contained a small, crank-operated generator. It also had two cables with clamps coming from it. Prison trustees (armed prisoners that actually guarded other prisoners, we will discuss this in the future as well) would clamp these cables on two different portions of the prisoner. Their favorite places was usually a finger and the penis. Then, they would crank, sending volts of electricity through the prisoner’s body.

This mode of torture was utilized until the late 1960s. Yes, that is not a typo. 1960. Like, around fifty years ago. It is even custom today when in the office of the Cummins or Tucker Prison Farm warden’s office to ask him whether the phone on his desk is a Tucker Telephone. Eventually, the work of courageous lawyers and judges, especially federal Judge J. Smith Henley, would open up the avenues of prisoner compliant. For the first time ever, these prisoners issues would be heard. And eventually, Judge Henley would declare the whole prison system in Arkansas unconstitutional.

Click here to look at this photo at Cara Joy Clausen’s flickr page. She also has other awesome pictures from the Arkansas prison farm.