300 F.Supp. 825 (E.D.Ark. 1969), PB-69-C-24, Holt v. Sarver

Docket Nº:PB-69-C-24, 69-C-25, 69-C-29.
Citation:300 F.Supp. 825
Party Name:Lawrence HOLT et al., Petitioners, v. Robert SARVER, Commissioner of Corrections, Respondent. Travis Eugene FIELDS et al., Petitioners, v. Robert SARVER, Commissioner of Corrections, Respondent. George W. OVERTON et al., Petitioners, v. Robert SARVER, Commissioner of Corrections, Respondent.
Case Date:June 20, 1969
Court:United States District Courts, 8th Circuit, Eastern District of Arkansas

Page 825

300 F.Supp. 825 (E.D.Ark. 1969)

Lawrence HOLT et al., Petitioners,


Robert SARVER, Commissioner of Corrections, Respondent.

Travis Eugene FIELDS et al., Petitioners,


Robert SARVER, Commissioner of Corrections, Respondent.

George W. OVERTON et al., Petitioners,


Robert SARVER, Commissioner of Corrections, Respondent.

Nos. PB-69-C-24, 69-C-25, 69-C-29.

United States District Court, E.D. Arkansas

June 20, 1969

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Steele Hays and Jerry D. Jackson, Little Rock, Ark., for petitioners.

Don Langston, Deputy Atty. Gen., and Mike Wilson, Asst. Atty. Gen., State of Arkansas, Little Rock, Ark., for respondent.

Memorandum Opinion

HENLEY, Chief Judge.

The several petitioners in subject cases are inmates of the Cummins Farm Unit of the Arkansas State Penitentiary located in Lincoln County, Arkansas, some miles south of the City of Pine Bluff and near the towns of Grady, Gould, and Dumas. Petitioners complain that those in charge of the Farm are depriving them of rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Federal jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C.A. 1343(3) and 42 U.S.C.A. 1983, is not questioned and is established. Under those sections the Court is authorized to grant both declaratory and injunctive relief to the extent that petitioners may have shown that they are entitled to relief.

The principal complaints of petitioners are that confinement in cells in the isolation unit of the Farm amounts to cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment as carried v. California, 370 U.S. 660, 82 S.Ct v. California, 370- U.S. 660, 82 S.Ct. 1417, 8 L.Ed.2d 758; Jackson v. Bishop, 8 Cir., 404 F.2d 571, reversing Jackson v. Bishop, E.D.Ark., 268 F.Supp. 804; Talley v. Stephens, E.D.Ark., 247 F.Supp. 683; that they are denied adequate medical attention, Talley v. Stephens, supra; and that the Penitentiary authorities have failed to take adequate steps to protect inmates from assaults by other inmates, Cf. Johnson v. United States Government, E.D.Va., 258 F.Supp. 372, and Cohen v. United States, N.D.Ga., 252 F.Supp. 679.

Respondent, Robert Sarver, is the Commissioner of Corrections of the State of Arkansas, having been named to that position in November 1968. Mr. Sarver is the administrative head of the Cummins Farm Unit and also of the much smaller Tucker Farm Unit located some miles from Cummins; the Tucker Farm is in Jefferson County and is located near the town of England. Mr. Sarver serves under the Arkansas State Board of Corrections, an agency in the Executive Branch of the State government which was created by the Legislature in 1967. Respondent, who is represented by the Attorney General of Arkansas,

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denies that the petitions have merit and asks that they be dismissed.

The petitions were submitted by the inmates pro se. The Court permitted them to be filed and prosecuted as class actions in forma pauperis and consolidated them for hearing. The Court appointed Mr. Steele Hays of Little Rock, an experienced and capable trial attorney, to represent petitioners without charge.

Mr. Hays accepted the appointment. He and one of his associates, Mr. Jerry Jackson, without expectation of compensation or reimbursement, proceeded to the Farm where they interviewed petitioners and others and took photographs of the facilities. Both Mr. Hays and Mr. Jackson vigorously represented petitioners at the rather extended hearing which consumed two full trial days and part of one night. The Court is most grateful to Messrs. Hays and Jackson for their services.

The three cases, hereinafter referred to collectively as though they were a single case, have been submitted on oral testimony, photographs, documentary evidence, and memorandum briefs. This opinion incorporates the Court's findings of fact and conclusions of law.


At this juncture it may be noted that the Court's inquiry here is limited to whether Arkansas convicts as a class, or individual convicts, have been and are being deprived of federal constitutional rights. The Court is not concerned in general with prison policies, administration, or discipline. However, if the State, acting through its penal authorities, is depriving convicts of rights which the Constitution protects, including the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, the Court may and should intervene to protect those rights and to put an end to unconstitutional practices. Courtney v. Bishop, 8 Cir., 409 F.2d 1185; Jackson v. Bishop, supra; Talley v. Stephens, supra.

The opinion of the Court of Appeals in Jackson v. Bishop, supra, makes clear that the concept of 'cruel and unusual punishment' is a flexible and expanding one, and that a punishment or system of punishment is unconstitutional if it offends concepts of decency and human dignity and precepts of civilization which Americans profess to possess, or if it is disproportionate to the offense, or if it violates fundamental standards of good conscience and fairness. 404 F.2d at 577-579.

Solitary confinement or close confinement in an isolation unit of a prison is not unconstitutional per se, but depending on the circumstances it may be. Courtney v. Bishop, supra; Graham v. Willingham, 10 Cir., 384 F.2d 367; Kostal v. Tinsley, 10 Cir., 337 F.2d 845; Jordan v. Fitzharris, N.D.Cal., 257 F.Supp. 674.

In Jordan the Court held that solitary confinement in 'slit cells' in a California correctional institution was in the circumstances shown by the evidence unconstitutional. It was said, 257 F.Supp. at 680, that the prison authorities had 'abandoned elemental concepts of decency by permitting conditions to prevail of a shocking and debased nature' to the extent that the Court was required promptly to intervene 'to restore the primal rules of a civilized community in accord with the mandate of the Constitution of the United States.'

It is plain, then, that the State must refrain from imposing cruel and unusual punishments on its convicts. And the Court is convinced that the State owes to those whom it has deprived of their liberty an even more fundamental constitutional duty to use ordinary care to protect their lives and safety while in prison. The Government owes that duty to federal prisoners, Johnson v. United States Government and Cohen v. United States, both supra; and the Court thinks that a State prisoner is entitled to the same measure of care from the State, although the State, of course, is not an insurer of the safety of its convicts.

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Where an unconstitutional situation is found to exist in a given prison, the prison authorities cannot escape responsibility for it by merely pointing to the existence of the same situation in other prisons, or by establishing that conditions in their prison are 'better' or 'no worse than' conditions prevailing elsewhere.

The record in this case is voluminous and covers a number of areas of prison life. The burden is upon the petitioners to show by a preponderance of the evidence that their constitutional rights and those of other inmates similarly situated have been violated, and that they are entitled to equitable relief with respect to the alleged violations.

The Court has considered the entire record in the light of the principles heretofore mentioned. The Court thinks it desirable to state at this point its ultimate findings and conclusions and to discuss some of them in detail at later points in the opinion.

Plaintiffs have failed to sustain their burden of proof with respect to the medical and dental facilities. While those facilities leave a good deal to be desired, the Court does not consider that the deficiencies are such as to raise a constitutional problem.

Plaintiffs have also failed to sustain their complaint about food served to prisoners while in isolation. As will be seen, the food is not appetizing; it is not intended to be, and the Constitution does not require that prisoners in isolation be served tasty or attractive dishes.

The Court heard some evidence as to alleged assaults on certain prisoners by prison employees and trusty guards. The Court does not think that evidence sufficient to justify relief in this case. Respondent and his subordinates are already forbidden by the injunction issued in the Jackson case from inflicting corporal punishment on convicts, and the Court is not persuaded that that injunction has been violated.

The Court does find from a preponderance of the evidence that the State has failed and is failing to discharge its constitutional duty with respect to the safety of certain convicts, and that the conditions existing in the isolation cells, including overcrowding, render confinement in those cells under those conditions unconstitutional.

With respect to the areas in which unconstitutionalities are found to exist, there is persuasive evidence that when a new maximum security unit is completed and put into operation in the next year or so the Farm's problems of inmate safety and confinement in isolation will be much ameliorated if not eliminated entirely. However, the Court is persuaded that present inmates are entitled to some injunctive relief in those areas at this time.


The history of Cummins Farm, which consists of more than 15,000 acres, and which has a present inmate population of something less than 1,000, has two phases.

The first phase lasted for years and did not come to an end until January 1968. During that long period of time there were extremely few paid 'free world' employees at the Farm. Prisoners were guarded by armed trusties, and those trusties and other inmates referred to for some reason as 'dopops' exercised a great deal of authority and control over other inmates. In...

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