Pulaski County Penal Farm

From 1918 to 1974, the Pulaski County government operated a prison facility—commonly known as the County Farm—on a 640-acre farm located west of Little Rock (Pulaski County) at the confluence of the Arkansas River and the Little Maumelle River. After the facility was closed in 1974 as a result of an order by a federal judge, the site later became Two Rivers Park, which is accessed from State Highway 10 on County Farm Road.

The County Farm was preceded by a series of “convict camps” and “convict farms.” In the early twentieth century, the prisoners were used for labor for county roads and bridges and were contracted out to private concerns for farm labor and land clearing. These early facilities were on rented land and were sometimes operated by private concerns. In 1915, County Judge Joe Asher ended the contract labor practice and bought the land to establish the penal farm, which was put into operation in 1918.

A newspaper article gave a description of the farm as it was operated in 1957. The prison population averaged 110 with a maximum of 165. The inmates had been convicted of misdemeanor crimes and were sentenced to terms of one year or less by municipal or traffic courts in Little Rock or the county’s circuit courts. The prisoners were required to work on the land, growing the farm’s crops and raising livestock. As much as ten percent of the prison population was from other counties, which paid a daily fee of $1.00 per prisoner. The typical racial mix was 2:1 white to Black, and the inmates were segregated. Up to twenty-five percent of the inmates were repeat offenders, particularly in the winter months when there was less farm work and a warm bed and food were provided.

Produce included soybeans and truck crops, but corn was the primary crop. Livestock included 165 cattle (beef and dairy); five mules; two horses; 600 laying hens; 1,500 baby chickens; and 600 hogs. The farm provided food for the county’s jail, hospital, and detention home, and for the farm itself. In some years, the farm showed a profit from the value of the food provided to county facilities or sold in the market. The inmates did all of the maintenance work, cooking, and farm labor. The staff consisted only of the superintendent, livestock manager, crop manager, and prisoner supervisor. The only guards were prisoner trusties, and it was reported that ten to twelve prisoners escaped each month; when recaptured, they had their sentences doubled.

County Judge Robert “Arch” Campbell, during his tenure from 1951 to 1966, added a chapel, a solitary confinement building, and an irrigation system. In 1956, the prisoners built a refrigeration plant, a dairy barn, a shower room, and a hay barn. In 1957, a flood ruined some farm acreage by leaving a layer of sand on eighty-five acres of cropland and sixty acres of pastureland, resulting in diminished production thereafter.

A lawsuit filed in 1970 by Philip Kaplan of the Legal Aid Bureau alleged that both the facilities and treatment of prisoners were unconstitutional. Federal judge J. Smith Henley ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered the farm closed by January 31, 1974. His decree stated the county could request reopening if conditions were improved and estimated that the facilities could be brought up to constitutional standards for as little as $500, but he emphasized that inmate treatment had to be changed.

In his decree, Judge Henley said the improvements were needed on housing, kitchen sanitation, clothing, bedding, and toilet facilities. He also ordered the elimination of physical means for punishment or for compelling work, including use of cattle prods, and ordered that armed trusties be replaced by around-the-clock civilian guards.

In July 1974, an inmate who disobeyed orders and went swimming in the Arkansas River got into difficulty. A fellow prisoner tried to help, and they both drowned.

County judge Frank Mackey responded to Henley’s decree by saying that some of the facility improvements had already been made and disagreed as to the cost of changes; he closed the farm as a confinement facility.

The county continued the farming operation into 1974. Prisoners in the county jail could volunteer for day work on the farm. Some took advantage of this to get out of the jail building for the day and to earn $5.00 per day credit against court-imposed fines.

The farming operation was discontinued after 1974. None of the twenty-five penal farm structures remain.

The county developed Two Rivers Park on the site of the former penal facility, and County Judge F. G. “Buddy” Villines dedicated it in 2011. The park includes an area where citizens can have large fenced gardens with irrigation available. There are extensive walking and bike trails in the park, and much of the acreage is dedicated to preserving the natural flora and fauna. Within the park is an area south of and across the Little Maumelle River from the site of the penal farm. There is a parking area, and the Two Rivers Bridge, a pedestrian/bicycle bridge, crossing over the river gives access from the south to the main park area.

For additional information:
“$500 Estimates.” Arkansas Democrat, March 6, 1974, p. 3C.

Arkansas History Commission Archives. Pulaski County Quorum Court Records.

Dean, Jerry. “Court Orders Penal Farm Closed.” Arkansas Democrat, January 5, 1974, pp. 1A, 2A.

Moseley, Ray. “It Operates at a Profit Too. County Farm Pleasant, So Guests Come Back.” Arkansas Gazette, July 28, 1957, p. 10A.

“Work at Farm Not Illegal, Henley Told.” Arkansas Gazette, July 4, 1974, p. 4A.

W. W. Satterfield
Little Rock, Arkansas


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