The expansion of the Arkansas prison system over the past two decades has been extraordinary. Every other state in the country has experienced similar growth in their prison systems.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, in 1923 there were only 61 state prisons in the country. By the mid 1970s there were 600 prisons. And by 2000, the number of state prisons had grown to 1,023. In 1974 there were a total of 218,000 inmates in all U.S. state and federal prisons. Now there are more than 1.3 million.
In Arkansas, the number of inmates has grown from 5,670 in 1988 to more than 13,000 today. The first penitentiary in Arkansas was on the site of what is now the state Capitol at Little Rock. It received its first prisoners in 1841. It had a shoe manufacturing program. In 1846 it burned during an inmate riot and was rebuilt in 1849. In the 1850s the state began charging private individuals for the use of inmate labor on farms and factories. That practice continued until the 1900s.
In 1902 Arkansas bought 10,000 acres in Lincoln County for $140,000 and opened the Cummins prison farm. In 1910 a unit in southwest Little Rock, known as "The Walls," was opened. In 1916 the 4,400-acre Tucker prison farm opened. In 1933 "The Walls" closed and its inmates were relocated to Tucker and Cummins. In 1951 the state opened a farm for women at Cummins. White women were transferred there from the Training School for Girls. African-American females were already being housed at Cummins and Tucker.
In 1972 a prison complex opened in Pine Bluff on 80 acres donated by business leaders. In 1974 the first work release center opened at Benton. A second work release center opened near Luxora, in Mississippi County, in 1974. Female inmates were moved to the Pine Bluff complex in 1976.
In 1980 a work release center in Springdale opened. In 1981 the state took over the Boys Training School at Wrightsville and converted it into a facility for male inmates.
In 1983 a regional correction unit at Texarkana and a maximum security unit at Tucker were opened. In 1987 the Correction Department opened the Varner Unit in Lincoln County, adjacent to Cummins. In 1988 the state bought land for new units at Calico Rock and Dermott.
In 1990 a regional jail and state prison unit opened at Pine Bluff. The state bought 2,949 acres for a prison unit at Brickeys, in Lee County, in 1991. Two new units opened near Newport in 1998, and in 1999 Malvern was chosen as the site of the newest state prison unit.
All of the units have expanded over the years. Also, the state has contracted with Texas to house inmates because of a lack of capacity in Arkansas. Texas has 137 prison units, of which 120 have been built in the past 20 years. Concho County, Texas, has a population of about 4,000, of which 33 percent are prison inmates.