From the levee, looking down on the cotton and soybean fields beyond the guard towers of Cummins prison, one sees at patch of grass with a complexion unlike the rest.
Green blends into sickly yellow and brown. The level terrain becomes bumpy in alternating mounds and depressions -- the sign of a burial ground.
The graveyard, like the way they used to treat people inside the prison, was never meant to be noticed.
But the world heard about both 12 years ago. In a scene remembered this year in the movie "Brubaker," a crusading new warden dug up three of the hundreds of bodies buried there and summoned the press. Word of life inside Cummins and other Arkansas prisons followed: whippings, malnutrition, medieval-style isolation, dungeon-like barracks, and terror.
By that time, a different kind of prison rebellion was under way across the nation. In growing numbers, prisoners and their legal-aid or court-appointed lawyers were challenging prison conditions in federal court. Since then, 17 state prison systems -- in whole or part -- have been declared unconstitutional, or "cruel and unusual" forms of punishment.
Arkansas, in 1969, was the first of these states.
They don't make movies about what happened next. Arkansas, after some recalcitrance, actually obeyed the court order to clean up the prisons. While overcrowded barracks remain that could have been sets in "Brubaker," for example, many prisoners are now housed in air-conditioned "pods" and suites. Where there was a women's prison once called "the most neglected in the United States," there is now a gleaming new women's facility in Pine Bluff, color-coordinated and carpeted, where the inmates live college-dorm style. Trained guards (albeit not enough and like all prison guards, sometimes given to excessive force) run the prisons, succeeding sociopathic inmates with shotguns.
It is not the stuff of movies. But in the field of corrections, where any change is dramatic, what has happened here may be very dramatic.
This is the state famous in the '50s and '60s for its resistance to court-ordered desegregation, the state of Orval Faubus, the archetypal belligerent southern governor.
Now comes a governor -- Bill Clinton -- who says publicly that the intervention of the federal courts into the affairs of his state's prisons was "healthy." This is the state that, as Clinton recalls, kept its prisons "out of sight, out of mind" and generally off limits to the outside world and now, enraged by publicity surrounding "Brubaker," practically begs reporters to tour its prisons.
And there are the prisons described by the federal court in 1969 as "dark and evil" places "completely alien to the free world."
Nobody here is bragging about the prisons yet. Vernon Housewright, the new corrections director, calls them "no worse than any other."
But for Arkansas, that is saying a lot.
"Looking at Arkansas in 1968," says Stephen LaPlante, a California sociologist and prison expert appointed as a monitor under the court agreement, "it was so much in the Dark Ages that virtually anything had to be an improvement."
But even when compared with the 17 other states since placed under prison-reform orders, "Arkansas has done a pretty good job," LaPlante said. "The others haven't made as much progress.
There are no studies showing that such improvements reduce crime and recividism, LaPlante said. But that was not, in fact, the point.
There are ways of sensing what the prisons were like here less than a decade ago. There is the movie, "Brubaker." There is an 8-millimeter film taken by lawyer Jack Holt Jr. in 1968 when he first visited Cummins: windowless isolation unit, mud, leaky roof, jagged porcelain on overflowing toilets.
Remnants are still in operation. Under the shimmer of a 100-degree sun, 30 inmates, clad all in white, form a hoe squad in the soybean fields under the guard of three mounted horsemen.
The Supreme Court, when it upheld the order against Arkansas in 1978, described conditions most graphically.
"Most of the guards," wrote Justice John Paul Stevens, "were simply inmates who had been issued guns. Although it had 1,000 prisoners, Cummins employed only eight guards who were not themselves convicts. While the 'trusties' maintained an appearance of order, they took a high toll from the other prisoners. Inmates could obtain access to medical treatment only if they bribed the trusty in charge of sick call. . . .
"It was within the power of a trusty guard to murder another inmate with practical impunity."
The trusties meted out punishment, Stevens said, "with a wooden-handled leather strap five feet long and four inches wide. . . . Some inmates were apparently whipped for minor offenses until their skin was bloody and bruised. The "Tucker telephone,' a hand-cranked device, was used to administer electrical shocks to various sensitive parts of an inmate's body."
In the barracks, "convicts known as 'creepers' would slip from their beds to crawl along the floor, stalking sleeping enemies. In one 18-month period," Stevens wrote, "there were 17 stabbings, all but one occuring in the barracks.
"homosexual rape was so common and uncontrolled that some potential victims dared not sleep; instead they would leave their beds and spend the night clinging to the bars nearest the guards' station."
Confinement in isolation, the court said, could be "for an indeterminate period of time. An average of four and sometimes as many as 10 or 11 prisoners were crowded into windowless 8-by-10-foot cells, containing no furniture other than a source of water and a toilet that could only be flushed from outside the cell. Prisoners in isolation received fewer than 1,000 calories a day."
The prisons received no funds from the state. They were said to be "self-supporting" through "leasing" inmate labor to local businesses and growing crops in thousands of surrounding rural acres. In practice, this meant that a bad crop year gave the prisoners that much less to eat.
"In the South," said Housewright, "they were accustomed to the use of slavery. Our system evolved from that.
"The states were also very poor. They had no way of earning money. The decision was made to use convict labor for that purpose."
There was no one to speak for the rights of prisoners and precious few even aware of conditions. The system was run by a corrections board -- "caustic, brittle, Neanderthal types," says LaPlante, the outside monitor. "They were all involved with corruption." The governor -- for six terms -- was Orval Faubus.
Judges and lawyers and others who came in contact with the system didn't care to know. Holt, a former prosecutor and once attorney general of Arkansas, said he was "in total ignorance about the penal system. I felt my responsibility ended with the response of the jury and the drop of the gavel. I could get up and ask that a man be sent to a place I'd never seen before. Most of us were that way. And most of the judges were that way too.
"We just didn't think too much about it."
In the late '60s, federal courts around the country for the first time became receptive to civil rights suits brought by inmates. In Arksansas, 20 or 30 such suits -- covering individual grievances -- accumulated. U.S. District Court Judge J. Smith Henley (now a U.S. Appeals Court judge) consolidated them into one suit based on the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual treatment.
He must have sensed that this was no ordinary case. In finding lawyers to handle it, he carefully chose Holt, the former prosecutor, a hunter, a stalwart Arkansan, and Philip E. Kaplan, known as a civil libertarian and causist, as well as a good lawyer.
In 1969, Holt, Kaplan and the inmates won their case. Changes were ordered. Ultimately an outside "compliance coordinator," LaPlante, was appointed to prod the state.
Compliance was slow or nonexistent until the early or mid-70s. The legislature was uninterested. In fact, it wasn't until 1975 that the last gun was taken from the last inmate trusty.
Then, according to most observers, reality began to take hold. "There was the ultimate threat," recalled Gov. Clinton, "that the court would order the prisons vacated."
"It became obvious," Holt said, "that if the money wasn't appropriated and the improvements not made, the Department of Corrections would be prohibited from receiving more inmates.
"The county jails would have backed up well beyond their capacities. It would back up and become a local political problem: the jails would be crowded, there would be escapes, the local judges wouldn't be able to send people to the penitentiary."
The court order would allow legislators, in alloting scarce funds, to tell their constituents they had no choice but to appropriate for the prisons. It gave them an excuse, observers say.
At the same time, the Faubus era ended and a new breed of governors -- Winthrop Rockefeller, Dale Bumpers and Clinton -- inherited power, bringing more progressive ideas and, in some instances, national ambitions.
In less than a decade, Arkansas has:
Spent over $13 million on construction of new units at Cummins and Tucker, a new hospital and diagnostic center for the entire system, and the new women's prison.
Increased the total operating budget from literally zero to about $15 million annually.
Expanded the workforce from about 30 in the entire prison system to about 650.
Increased the number of guards in the system from a dozen or so to about 350.
Accepted the presence of the mediator -- financed by the Winthrop Rockerfeller Foundation through the National Center for Correctional Mediation -- who is present at Cummins continuously.
Established flourishing vocational and graduate-equivalency education for inmates.
The remaining old barracks at Cummins are still overcrowded. LaPlante and the warden both complain that there are -- at night -- only four guards for a thousand prisoners.
There is still serious problem of excessive force, producing occasional scenes that could be straight out of "Brubaker."
On Jan. 1, 1979, for example, a dozen prisoners staged a brief escape from the Cummins maximum security unit, knocking a guard unconscious.
After recapture, when most had surrendered and were cuffed, an investigation by LaPlante found systematic beatings had been administered by guards as well as by the second-highest official in the correctional system (later seriously considered, though rejected, for corrections director).
Thomas Murton, the real-life model for "Brubaker," the crusading warden played by Robert Redford, was forced out of the Arkansas prison system in 1968 after exposing the Cummins burial ground. The movie is based loosely on a book he later wrote.
Murton, who now farms in rural Oklahoma, said in an interview that he has applied unsuccessfully for 150 corrections jobs since leaving Arkansas. He believes he is blacklisted.
Twelve years after the event, he is still haunted by the bodies buried outside Cummins prison and the absence of any attempt to determine for certain how they got there.
"I had an inmate sentenced to 20 years for stealing a pig," Murton recalled. "He wanted to know why people who murdered are still walking around free."
Arkansas, in a way, is also still haunted by the bodies. Of the three dug up by Murton, the state has been able to explain only one: an inmate murdered in 1940 by another inmate. Beyond that, officials seem uninterested in exhuming the hundreds of other bodies for examination.
Instead, they maintain an informal truth squad to rebut the negative publicity created by the movie and by interviews Murton has given since. They hint darkly to reporters that the former warden is "obsessed," doesn't know how to get along with people," and "distorts" the truth.
Gov. Clinton and aides went rushing off to New York after a Murton interview on the "Today" show to make their own appearance in defense of the prison system.
Murton calls the charges so far "cosmetic." He insists that the state must find out about the bodies as if that would be the ultimate act of redemption. "You can't provide the cure if you don't know the disease." Murton said. "I understand them. When they start to reform, they want to look to the future, not to the past. But the public has to know exactly what was wrong with that system. If I have a compulsion, it's not to disgrace Arkansas. It's to get justice for those inmates" buried at Cummins prison.