News & History

HISTORY MINUTE: The man behind prison reform in Arkansas

By KENNETH BRIDGES | For The Arkadelphian

Sometimes, there is a high price to pay for principles.  For Tom Murton, his principles dictated fairness for the least sympathetic in society, prison inmates.  However, Murton’s brief but controversial tenure as an Arkansas prison superintendent brought nationwide attention to problems within the state’s prisons which paved the way for later reforms.

He was born in California in 1928.  He later moved to Oklahoma where he received a degree in animal husbandry from Oklahoma State University in 1950.  He briefly served in the military and also worked as a deputy U. S. Marshal in Alaska.  In the early 1960s, just after Alaska gained statehood, he worked to establish the new state’s prison system.

Murton believed that the prospect of prisoners’ return to society made it essential that they be treated with some humanity so that they would know how to behave when they returned to society.  However, in a society victimized by so much crime, few people were interested in the treatment of convicted criminals; and many argued that they deserved whatever happened to them.  After many arguments with Alaska state officials, he was fired from his position.

He completed a masters degree in penology in 1964 at the University of California at Berkeley and found work as a college instructor in Illinois.  In 1967, the new Arkansas governor, Winthrop Rockefeller, elected the previous year, expressed strong interest in prison reform after reports detailed horrific beatings and other abuses of prisoners. As a result that year, Murton was hired as warden of the Tucker State Prison Farm near Pine Bluff.  He quickly instituted a program that improved the food for prisoners and ended physical punishments of inmates.

He was named head of the state prison system in January 1968 and set about correcting overcrowding and other issues at the Cummins Prison Farm in Lincoln County.  He bitterly criticized his predecessors and state officials for allowing conditions in Arkansas prisons to become so bad.

However, Murton’s downfall centered around reports from prisoners that escapees were routinely shot after recapture and others were sometimes tortured to death.  He found three bodies buried near the prison and claimed the discovery confirmed the prisoner allegations, sparking a storm of controversy and media attention.

The official investigation, however, rejected Murton’s claims about the bodies.  Investigators claimed the bodies were interred as part of a local cemetery for the poor though that cemetery was more than a mile from where the bodies were found.  Murton bitterly criticized the report and the management of the prison, and even Gov. Rockefeller criticized the report.  Later investigations claimed the graves were part of a larger cemetery for the prison, though the graves were unmarked.  No prison officials were ever indicted in connection with any alleged prisoner death.

As the controversy swirled, Gov. Rockefeller decided to end the problem by getting him out of Arkansas altogether.  He fired Murton in March 1968 and warned him to get out of the state or face felony grave-robbing charges.

Murton and his family returned to Alaska, but he never worked in the prison system again.  He published a moderately successful book on his experiences in 1970, Accomplices to the Crime.  Unable to find work, the family descended into poverty. The pressures radiating from the Arkansas prison scandals eventually caused his marriage to collapse.  He and his wife divorced, and the relationship with his children was reportedly strained.  His career rebounded when he accepted a position as a professor at the University of Minnesota in 1971.

Even with Murton far away from Arkansas, the scandal still simmered.  Several court rulings condemned the state’s prison system, and a series of reforms in the 1970s and 1980s enacted gradual improvements in the system.

Murton’s autobiographical work was made into a fictional retelling of his experiences with Arkansas prisons in the 1980 movie Brubaker, starring Robert Redford.  Murton worked as technical advisor for the film, resigning from his teaching position.  There were several differences between the movie and reality, namely that it was filmed entirely in Ohio and erroneously suggested that he had disguised himself as a prisoner, which he did not do.  Otherwise, Murton stated that he was satisfied with the portrayal, and the film was nominated for an Academy Award in 1981.

He lived his final years in Oklahoma, operating a small farm and teaching sporadically. He published two more books.  His last book, published in 1985, concentrated on the prison system in Arkansas titled Crime and Punishment in Arkansas: Adventures in Wonderland.  He died of cancer in 1990 at age 62.