James Gary Whittington, a 32-year-old inmate with a badly withered arm and hand, was transferred to Arkansas' Maximum Security Unit last Nov. 4. Soon after he arrived, several guards escorted him to a small office. There, they smacked him in the face, taunted him, held a cardboard box over his head and sprayed burning mace into his eyes, according to two former guards who said they witnessed the incident.
"I just looked," said former guard Tyrone Robinson. "I said: 'What's wrong with these people? These people are mad.' This was really torture . . . . All during that time they were just harassing the man. Man hadn't did nothing."
The account of Whittington's introduction to the 175-inmate prison is not unique. There have been more than 100 allegations of guard brutality in the 15 months since the facility, known as "The Max," opened to house Arkansas' most hardened criminals.
Nine former guards, many of them senior-level officers, said in interviews that inmates have been beaten, clubbed with nightsticks and lead-weighted "slappers," sprayed with mace, left in a freezing cell or chained to telephone poles in the sweltering sun.
One inmate was said to have been forced to go barking and crawling like a dog through the prison hallways and fields. Several guards said they and others falsified reports to justify beatings and acts of intimidation.
Warden Larry Norris said that brutality has not been a problem at his facility, beyond an "isolated incident or two" and that inmate complaints must be considered in the context of prison life. "They don't have anything better to do than try to gain attention," Norris said of the inmates. "When they get someone to listen to them, that just makes the fire hotter." Norris said the brutality charges were part of an inmate conspiracy to disrupt the prison, and he questioned the credibility of former guards who said they witnessed or took part in the incidents. Several of them, he said, had been fired for brutality.
Kevin Murphy, who at age 24 is a senior personnel officer who trains guards at the prison, said he has seen no evidence of brutality and has never used force except to subdue an inmate. "A lot of people get the wrong impression of brutality. An inmate writes and says, 'This officer smacked me in the mouth.' That may very well have happened, but the inmate failed to mention he tried to cut an officer up . . . . People don't realize these people have robbed, raped, and stolen. They think they wouldn't lie. That's absurd."
Murphy has been named in several inmate allegations of brutality. In 1980 his superior, concerned with such charges, wrote in a memo that Murphy was "to have very little contact with inmates." In 1981 a federal court ordered him to pay $1,000 to an inmate who alleged that Murphy had kicked him while he was naked and handcuffed.
Art L. Lockhart, head of Arkansas' Department of Correction, said that his agency is investigating the issue but that he is convinced there is no problem at any of the state's prisons, where the starting salary is $11,000 a year. "The Arkansas Department of Correction is a model in the United States," he said.
The three-tiered, red-brick Maximum Security Unit barely rises above the seemingly endless 5,000-acre tract of farm land it occupies in rural Tucker about 40 miles southeast of Little Rock. At the end of a windswept road, beyond an armed sentinel, its double hurricane fence topped with razor wire is punctuated by four towers where guards pace with M14 rifles. On the hills can be seen the "High Riders" -- blue-uniformed guards on horseback, their .357 magnums holstered at their sides, as they order about units of white-clad inmates working in the fields.
On these same grounds 17 years ago the Arkansas prison system was rocked by disclosures of mysterious deaths and widespread cruelty, including the notorious "Tucker Telephone" -- an electric shock administered to prisoners. The notoriety spawned much-touted reforms and even inspired a Hollywood movie called "Brubaker."
Prison and state officials have denied The Washington Post access to inmates at the new prison. No reporter has been permitted to enter the cellblocks or speak with inmates since it opened.
The accounts of alleged brutality are told through the inmates' words in written correspondence, from interviews with former and current prison officers and from an examination of court documents, ACLU and National Prison Project files and medical records.
"They were trying to run a tight prison . . . . The officers just got so carried away," said Dale Blevins, a former guard. "There's a time and a place to whup the inmates. Sometimes you have to in these institutions. But what I'm saying is, not to the point where it's every day for no reason when you come to work. There's no sense in that."
Larry Young, a former major in charge of security, recalled: "The word came down that we were gonna hold this place. Some people interpreted that as 'Tear heads off!' " Young added: "I felt ashamed that these things were occurring, ashamed that people had degenerated so far as to take pleasure in inflicting pain on others."
"They were trying to get a psychological edge over the inmates, but they did it wrong," said former guard Tyrone Robinson, who was fired for fighting with another guard. "I mean, you need an edge over them if you're going to run an institution, but they took it too far."
Former guard Billy Pippenger, who was fired in June for what he said was falsifying a report, said the guards had a name for the initiation of inmates. They called it "tuning them up."
The following accounts are only a small portion of the cases that the former guards said they participated in or witnessed. 'Masters Is Here'
Jimmy Masters was sent to "The Max" after causing trouble at Cummins prison. When he arrived the guards were waiting for him, said former guard Al Dodds. From the master control room, Dodds said, he could monitor conversations in the major's office.
"I overheard several guards talking about him because back at Cummins he had a reputation of being a pretty heavy inmate. He had a lot of clout," said Dodds. "There were several officers yelling 'Masters is here! He's here!' Then everybody kind of congregated in the major's office."
"Someone, a guard said, 'You're at the Big House. You're no longer at Cummins . . . . It sounded like someone's body was being slammed up against the desk and wall. I kept hearing Masters screaming 'No! No!' . . . . I heard a lot of yelling of 'Boy!' and 'Yes, sir!' . . . . They were telling him to get on his knees."
Masters emerged with a puffy, red face and blood dripping from his nose, said Dodds. "They were trying to display to him what kind of inmate they wanted him to become, and they gave him . . . reinforcement about what would happen if he didn't."
That was only the first of Masters' beatings, according to former guard Dale Blevins.
"Last year he had hemorrhoid surgery in Pine Bluff in the Diagnostic Unit. According to Major Young Blevins' superior officer , Masters had talked to the doctor there, and they had called inquiring about being beat and that he was scared of returning to the Maximum Security Unit," recalled Blevins.
"The day Masters was coming back, Major Young called me into the office and told me when Masters came back for me to get the information out of him any way I had to of what he had said down at Pine Bluff."
Blevins said Masters was taken to the major's office for questioning.
"He didn't really say anything. Then finally he admitted he said he didn't want to come back to the Unit. I called the major and he said that was a lie. The major told me he wanted that information and he didn't care if Masters had to go back to the hospital . . . "
"I slapped him two or three times and pitched him against the wall," said Blevins. "He finally wrote out a statement that I gave to Major Young the next morning."
"I don't recall ever hearing that before," said Warden Norris. Young denied Blevins' account. He was demoted for an unrelated matter and eventually resigned. He is now a guard at the federal prison in Texarkana, Tex. Blevins was fired for an unrelated matter and is now a guard at the Missouri State Penitentiary. 'He Damn Near Froze to Death' -
George Thorne is a writ writer -- an inmate who files countless court briefs for himself and others. He is, in his words, a "thorn" in the side of the institution. Thorne, 46, said he was nearly frozen to death last winter. He said he was placed in isolation, stripped naked and deprived of a mattress and blankets. The vents to the chill outside air were left open, he said.
Warden Norris said Thorne fabricated the story. "It doesn't surprise me that he would say that," said Norris. "I know Thorne . . . . Sometimes he's a little careless with the way things actually are."
Thorne sued the prison over this and other alleged abuses. He lost the case, and the presiding magistrate wrote: "Plaintiff has set down an exhaustive list of petty gripes and complaints most of which do not even approach constitutional magnitude."
But two former guards who did not testify at the trial said in interviews that Thorne was telling the truth. Tyrone Robinson said he remembered the scene well:
"That's when it was about 20-some degrees outside . . . . George Thorne was balled up in the corner and it was freezing back there. Someone had left the vent open on the guy. He had practically gotten frost-bitten. The coloration of his body had changed . . . . I thought he was dead at first because he was blue . . . . I said, 'George, what's wrong with you?' He just said, 'Sgt. Robinson, they're trying to kill me.' He said, 'If you don't mind, will you get me a grievance form?' and I obliged him."
Former guard Carl Leonard said that he remembered seeing Thorne in the cell and that "he damn near froze to death." Leonard said he filled out an incident report complaining that someone had left the vents open on Thorne. 'His Two Front Teeth Came Out'
On the evening of July 24, 1983, tensions were high because two inmates had escaped from a nearby unit. Guards were ordered to search the cells, and inmate Frank Davis was slow to leave his, so Lt. Blevins, Sgt. Pippenger and another guard took him to the major's office.
Davis said as soon as he got there the officers began beating him in the face, ribs and stomach. Then they stopped for a moment.
Pippenger remembered: "Lt. Blevins said, 'I got one more thing before you go.' He slapped him open back hand in the lower lip and the inmate's two bottom teeth fell out right in his hand. He spit them out right in his hand. That was it. They took him over to the infirmary and let him rinse his mouth out and gave him some pain medicine . . . . I really don't remember what he had done to tell you the truth."
"I'll admit to you," said Blevins, "I did do it. I didn't hit him with a stick. All I did was slap him with my hand and his two front teeth came out . . . . I wish his teeth hadn't fallen out but his teeth were rotten anyway . . . . He didn't threaten me, I'll say that." Blevins said he struck Davis because he had been swearing at the guards.
At the infirmary, the doctor was told that Davis had been called out of his cell still half asleep and hurt himself falling against the sink, according to Blevins, who said that fictitious account also was written by the officers in their official report.
Davis sued. Said Warden Norris, "If he Blevins said it happened, it must have, but I was not aware that it happened." Later in the interview Norris said: "No sir, today is not the first day that I believed it."
Norris said Blevins was not fired for the incident. But David White, a spokesman for the state correction department, said Blevins and Pippenger were fired for an incident occuring on the same date as Davis' beating. The Hoe Squad
It falls to those inmates assigned to the Hoe Squad to work the fields, clear ditches and pull weeds. In the dry season the fields are called "Buckshot" for their hardness, and in the rainy season, "Gumbo" for the thick mud.
On June 21, as the temperature climbed into the mid-90s, six inmates stood in the sun, handcuffed to telephones poles at the edge of a field, watched by a guard armed with a .357 magnum pistol and a rifle.
Prison officials said the inmates had refused to work, and they feared that it might spread to a full-scale work stoppage. Some of the inmates said they were not trying to start a work stoppage but refused to work the lead row position because they would be made to set an impossibly fast pace for those behind them.
They were chained to the poles all afternoon.
"I don't have anything to hide about that and I think the action I took I thought at the time was appropriate," said Warden Norris. Asked if he would do the same thing again, Norris answered: "I wouldn't say that at this point. Hindsight is a lot better that foresight." 'Old Blue'
In October 1983, Field Sgt. Gary Howell made inmate Eddy Ray Messimer act like a dog, said Messimer, who has been treated with antipsychotic medication. In a letter, he wrote: "Two officers put a gun and rifle on me . . . . I was made to get on my knees and crawl like a dog. I was made to go and pick up sticks like a dog and bring it to these officers. I was made to bark up at a tree like I was treeing a coon. I was even made to get on my knees and sniff horse manure and bark at it."
"That's not true, and I'm not going to make any more comments," Howell said in an interview. Howell resigned last week.
Messimer named 16 inmates who claimed to be witnesses. Two guards also said they saw Messimer acting like a dog. Recalled former guard Carl L. Leonard, "He'd be walking to the building and a field officer would say 'Hit off Old Blue!' and he'd holler like a bloodhound."
Former guard Blevins remembered: "The High Riders were out on their horses. Some officer yelled 'Old Blue!' and he let out a yell."
"I think it's very possible that something happened," said Warden Norris. "But I don't believe that it all happened." 'They Are Going to Kill Me'
The prison medical records for inmate Harvey Jones reveal in clinical detail the results of what he said was a beating he received from guards in the field behind the firing range. On May 9, the patient's chart for Jones noted:
"S: Subjective Alleges he was beaten by Lt. Manes and Capt. Handley and alleged threats to life. O: Objective Has welt diagonally across back from R shoulder to L flank plus welt horizontally across mid-back. Also alleges hit on L thigh . . . . A: Assessment Probable contusion to back as above. P: Plan 1) Robaxin 750 mg . . . . 2) Tylenol 1000 mg . . . . 3) lay in this PM."
Another chart, referring to the same incident, said Jones "alleges being struck with sticks and 'slapper' by officers."
Two days later the doctor wrote: "Note: PT Patient refuses light inside work so they will 'lock him in the hole.' Says if he goes in the field 'they are going to kill me.'"
Jerome Reprogle, who runs the prison infirmary, said: "I can only remember thinking when I saw him that he had positively been beaten . . . . He had welts and bruises. There was really no other way to get those welts . . . . I immediately thought that he was telling the truth. I would say that the man had suffered intentional brutality."
Mike Manes and Walter Handley dispute Jones' account. They were fired for excessive use of force relating to an incident occurring on the day Jones said he was beaten. 'Like It Was Part of an Initiation'
Former guard Al Dodds doesn't like to talk of the beating he said he and two other guards gave inmate J. Phillips, but he cannot put it out of his mind.
"It was something that built up between me and this particular inmate for three or four months. I had a lot of personal animosity towards him," recalled Dodds. He said "Old Dog Phillips," as the inmate was known, had once gone to his superior officer and told him that Dodds was sleeping on the job.
On the morning of Sept. 28, 1983, Dodds said, he was asked to serve on a disciplinary hearing against Phillips. He said he told his superiors, Lt. Lem Jackson and Sgt. Jeff Eubanks, of his problem with Phillips. Dodds said Lt. Jackson told him he could "do what he wanted to do."
When Phillips entered the hearing room, the officers were waiting for him, according to Dodds. "As soon as he came in we just teed off on him, all three of us," said Dodds. He said that Phillips was hit "countless times" and that a gash was opened under his left cheek bone that was later closed with stitches at the infirmary.
Dodds said he was directed by Jackson to make out a false report on the form required any time physical force was used against an inmate. In a first draft of that report, which Dodds said Jackson told him to write, he put under the statement of officer's reason for using force: "While entering the major's office for a disciplinary hearing, I was asked to close the door and inmate J. Phillips assumed an offensive posture raised his fist and grabbed me. And I responded by striking inmate Phillips twice in the face."
"He Jackson had me do it over because there were several mistakes, and he wanted to build up the drama . . . . This copy was falsified," said Dodds.
Jackson and Eubanks disputed Dodd's account, saying that inmate Phillips initiated an assault on Dodds, that minimal force was used to subdue him and that their report was accurate. Jackson, who has since resigned to become a police chief in Oklahoma, speculated that Dodds was motivated by racial hostility against the two white officers, Eubanks and Jackson. Dodds is black. Eubanks now works as a welder.
After the beating, Dodds said, "Lt. Jackson even patted me on the back. He said, 'Congratulations,' like it was part of an initiation or something . . . . Seemed like after the beating I was rewarded with a lot more benefits, more freedom, cause I proved to them that I was a brutal-type corrections officer."