Ruled by the Whip

Ruled by the Whip: Hell behind Bars in America’s Devil’s Island, the Arkansas Penitentiary is a 1958 self-published autobiographical account written by Dale Woodcock. One of the few printed accounts by an Arkansas prisoner, the book chronicles Woodcock’s experiences at Cummins prison farm in the 1950s. While the book garnered little attention when it was written, its tales of violence, corruption, and brutality corroborated abuses documented later during the governorship of Winthrop Rockefeller, who began work to reform the prisons.

The author was born Charles Dale Woodcock on March 21, 1925, in Rogers (Benton County). He was the son of Henry Lee Woodcock (1900–1928) and Lillie Dell “Honey” Townsend Woodcock (1907–1988), both of whom were Arkansas natives. After the death of his father, Woodcock’s mother remarried. Woodcock served in the military during World War II, but he joined too late to see any combat. He was discharged in August 1946.

Little is known about Woodcock, but the few details he gives in the book conform to what is known about him. He describes himself as tall man—over six feet—well educated, and in his mid-twenties. The book notes that Woodcock grew up in Arkansas, where he had heard horror stories about the prisons. Woodcock studied to be a doctor. The crime that sent him to prison was theft: he stole a microscope.

The book begins with the author’s arrest in Ohio, where he was shackled and sent south to Arkansas. Woodcock was bailed out of jail, but he skipped bond, fled to the West Coast, and was captured again in Oregon. Woodcock plea-bargained his case in court but was given six years in prison. He was sent to Cummins Unit, where Arkansas housed its black and white adult prisoners, though their living quarters were segregated. He was quickly introduced to the “trusty” system of incarceration, in which inmate guards, called “trusties,” were used. A convict told him on his first day, “This is the roughest prison in the country.”

Ruled by the Whip is brief, only 131 pages, and is written in a terse, straight-forward style. It omits profanity and graphic sex. Nevertheless, it provides grim details of prison life, including the poor medical treatment (administered by trusty “doctors”), flimsy buildings, whippings, a starvation diet, overcrowding in the barracks and showers, and the brutality of the long line, where men picked cotton under the watchful eyes of guards on horseback. Woodcock noted that the cutting of sugar cane was the job inmates hated the most.

Woodcock depicted the warden in an unpleasant light, describing him as a man “devoid of human passion as the face of a marble angel over a sepulcher.” Trusties had complete power over inmates, and men were forced to beg for things as simple as postage stamps. Other acts were more brutal, as when Woodcock was cracked in the head by a guard, which caused him permanent injury and blackouts. Whatever he might have thought of the warden and the guards who ran Cummins, Woodcock also had a low opinion of fellow inmates, saying “at least 40 percent of the inmates were depraved, evil, insane monsters.” In his opinion, the combination of lack of oversight by the warden and the trusties’ brutality made animals of the men. “There’s nothing in Arkansas to be thankful for,” lamented one prisoner. Even those who made friends saw their friendships broken when they were forced to fight for the amusement of other prisoners. At one point, one of Woodcock’s fellow inmates noted that outsiders “wouldn’t believe a place like this exists in America.” The book concludes with Woodcock being released from prison, though as a final insult, he discovered that the forty dollars he had when he entered the prison—and supposedly held for him until his release—had been stolen.

Ruled by the Whip is the only book that Woodcock ever published. Few copies exist and are mostly held in libraries’ special collections. Because the book’s publication coincided with the Central High desegregation crisis of 1957–58, Arkansans had little interest in reading about the conditions inside the prisons given the national spotlight on the state’s troubled race relations. Ten years later, however, the public spotlight shone on the prisons. The poor conditions at the state penitentiary would become national, even international, news. Woodcock’s account presaged the work of reformer Tom Murton as well as the 1967 prison drama Cool Hand Luke.

Woodcock died on January 26, 1991, in Sulphur Springs (Benton County). The publisher for Ruled by the Whip, New York–based Exposition Press, went out of business. While he is little known among Arkansas authors, Woodcock’s prison story provides one of the most detailed, brutal, and accurate accounts of prison life in mid-twentieth-century Arkansas.

For additional information:
Franklin, Howard Bruce. Prison Literature in America: The Criminal as Victim and Artist. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Woodcock, Dale. Ruled by the Whip: Hell behind Bars in America’s Devil’s Island, the Arkansas Penitentiary. Hicksville, NY: Exposition Press, 1958.

Colin Woodward
Stratford Hall


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