The Varner Unit is a detention facility run by the Arkansas Department of Correction. It is located in the Choctaw Township of Lincoln County, along U.S. Highway 65, about thirty miles south of Pine Bluff (Jefferson County). The Varner Unit was constructed in response to the state’s fast-growing inmate population; other state facilities had been expanded prior to Varner’s construction. When it opened in 1987, it could accommodate 300 prisoners; its capacity was increased to 700 and then later to around 1,700.
The Varner Unit is made up of two separate units: the Supermax Unit and the Varner Unit. The Supermax Unit was opened in 2000 and in 2003 became home to all the state’s male death row inmates. In the summer of that year, the thirty-nine prisoners then awaiting execution were transferred from the Maximum Security Unit to the Supermax Unit, although executions in Arkansas actually take place in the Cummins Unit. The Varner Unit itself is a medium-security operation that has multiple fences, including an electric one that became operational in January 2005.
As part of its effort to rehabilitate inmates and prepare them for their return to society, the unit offers a range of work and treatment programs. These include both vocational and agricultural education and training, as well as drug and alcohol treatment programs. The inmates are generally housed in locked cells at night, and they are also allowed certain privileges, including the use of a recreation area, television, and phones. Some inmates hold jobs within the prison.
The Varner Unit has housed a number of the state’s most well-known prisoners, including the West Memphis Three. The unit’s longtime use in incarcerating male juvenile offenders led to it being nicknamed the “Gladiator School.” Varner also serves as one of the state’s “parent units” for male prisoners, meaning that it is one of several places to which male prisoners are originally assigned before they are fully processed.
Some occurrences at Varner have cast a negative light on the state’s Department of Correction. In 2009, a guard was fired after an investigation found that she had helped a death row inmate exchange food with another inmate—a violation of institutional rules. While the official report did not address it, there were also allegations that the guard had engaged in a romantic and sexual relationship with the death row prisoner.
That same year, Betsey Wright, who had served as Governor Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, was accused of trying to smuggle contraband items—including a small knife, a box cutter, and tattoo needles—to prisoners on death row. Wright, an avowed opponent of the capital punishment and a frequent visitor to death row, was originally charged with fifty-one felony counts, but in April 2010 she agreed to a plea bargain in which, in exchange for forty-eight felony counts being dropped, she pleaded no contest to two misdemeanors, though she publicly denied the charge. Wright was fined $2,000 and put on probation for a year.
In 2011, a fight between prisoners and corrections officers resulted in widespread injuries on both sides. The skirmish appeared to have stemmed, at least in part, from issues relating to cell phones smuggled into the unit (officials have attributed three escapes to plans orchestrated through cell phones). Regarding the 2011 incident, reports indicate that Damien Echols, one of the West Memphis Three, was at the center of the disturbance when he was believed to have used a smuggled phone to make a recording. The following year saw another incident in which a fight broke out between some inmates and corrections officials following an effort to crack down on the contraband phones again. Three department employees were injured, with one hospitalized. In August 2016, the Varner Unit was the site of two inmate deaths within a twenty-four-hour period, which raised questions about the treatment of the inmates.
Despite these incidents, the Varner Unit continues to be one of the Arkansas Department of Correction’s central facilities.
For additional information:
Leveritt, Marla. “Prison Tense over Contraband; Five Guards Attacked at Misskelley’s Unit; Others Ransack Echols’ Cell.” Mara Leveritt.com, March 9, 2011. http://maraleveritt.com/prison-tense-over-contraband-five-guards-attacked-at-misskelleys-unit-others-ransack-echols-cell/ (accessed May 17, 2017).
Miller, Justin. “Arkansas Prisoner Almost Dies after Being Left in Feces.” Prison Legal News, April 15, 2010. https://www.prisonlegalnews.org/news/2010/apr/15/arkansas-prisoner-almost-dies-after-being-left-in-feces/ (accessed May 17, 2017).
Varner Unit, Arkansas Department of Correction. http://adc.arkansas.gov/facilities/details/varner-unit (accessed May 17, 2017).
William H. Pruden
Last Updated: 03/11/2020