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.