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Holt v. Sarver

In the landmark Arkansas case Holt v. Sarver, inmates of the racially segregated Cummins Farm and Tucker Intermediate Reformatory units of the Arkansas prison system brought suit against the commissioner of corrections, Robert Sarver, and the Arkansas Board of Corrections, challenging their conditions of confinement. The case was heard in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, Pine Bluff Division, before Chief Judge J. Smith Henley. Holt v. Sarver was a turning point in the history of court intervention in the management of American prisons. The decision marked the end of the “hands-off” era of the federal judiciary toward prisoners and the beginning of an era of prisoners’ rights.

Holt v. Sarver, which inspired the 1980 film Brubaker, was the first case brought by inmates against a prison system in which the petitioners argued that the “totality of conditions of confinement” that existed in the prison system combined to violate the constitutional rights of prisoners. The petitioners brought their suit under Article 42 Section 1983 of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1871, the section of the code originally promulgated to protect the rights of newly freed slaves from lawless activities of state officials. Holt v. Sarver set the standard and established the precedent by which inmates could challenge the constitutionality of their conditions of confinement.

In Holt v. Sarver I (1969), three petitions of inmates of the Cummins Farm Unit, a 17,000-acre prison in Lincoln County, were consolidated and filed as a class-action suit. The court appointed Steele Hays, a respected Little Rock (Pulaski County) trial attorney, and his associate, Jerry D. Jackson, to represent the petitioners without charge. They visited the Cummins Farm (now the Cummins Unit of the Arkansas Department of Correction), near the town of Grady (Lincoln County), where they conducted interviews with the petitioners and others and took photographs of the facilities; the interviews and photos were submitted in evidence.

The principal complaints put forward by the petitioners were that confinement in isolation cells constituted cruel and unusual punishment, as did being denied medical attention, and that penitentiary authorities failed to protect prisoners from inmate-on-inmate assaults. The court found that “the prolonged confinement of numbers of men in the same cell under the described conditions was hazardous to health and offended modern sensibilities and, in the court’s estimation, amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. The state also failed its constitutional duty to take precautions for inmates’ safety.”

The judge ordered injunctive relief, and the commissioner was directed to report to the court within thirty days the steps being taken to resolve the problems. The court did not approve the commissioner’s report. Due to continuing complaints and disturbing reports from the Cummins and Tucker prison units, Judge Henley decided not to terminate the three consolidated cases.

In Holt v. Sarver II (1970), Henley consolidated eight petitions of inmates from the Cummins Farm and the Tucker Intermediate Reformatory as a class-action suit (including the three cases from Holt v. Sarver I). Tucker Intermediate Reformatory (now the Tucker Unit of the Arkansas Department of Correction) is a 5,000-acre farm in Jefferson County. The inmates alleged that the cumulative effect of the conditions of confinement in Arkansas penitentiaries amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. They also argued that their long hours of forced labor in the fields without compensation for the benefit of the State of Arkansas violated the Thirteenth Amendment. The court appointed Jack Holt Jr. and Philip Kaplan of the Little Rock Bar to represent petitioners without charge.

Judge Henley did not find that the inmates’ involuntary servitude in the fields constituted a violation of the Thirteenth Amendment. However, he did declare the entire Arkansas prison system to be so inhumane as to be in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth amendments’ prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. He found that the state was “unable to protect the inmates from harm and possible death.” In addition, he found that racial discrimination was being practiced at both units. Henley noted that, unlike other cases that challenged certain practices and abuses as they affected individual Arkansas convicts, this case constituted “an attack on the System itself,” the first time that an entire penitentiary system was challenged in any court.

According to Henley, a particular convict might challenge his being beaten with the penitentiary strap, being electrically shocked by the “Tucker telephone,” or being compelled to stand for long periods on the “teeter board.” But regardless of how conditions affect an individual inmate, the court found that confinement within a given institution can itself be so bad that it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Taken together, the “trusty” system, the crowding of large numbers of men in open barracks, primitive conditions in the isolation cells, the failure to ensure the safety of inmates, and the failure to provide meaningful rehabilitation programs had cumulative impact and constituted violation of prisoners’ constitutional rights.

In his opinion, Henley stated that, unlike most penal systems in the United States, the Arkansas prison system utilized armed trusties to guard rank-and-file inmates, which resulted in enormous abuses of power. The Arkansas prison system had only thirty-five paid free-world employees at the Cummins Unit for approximately 1,000 prisoners. Of the thirty-five, eight were guards, only two of whom were available for night duty—a time when many sexual assaults occurred. Henley opposed the state’s delegating the governance of one convict to another convict and concluded that this practice forced convicts to sell their blood to obtain money to pay for their safety, food, or access to medical attention—a practice that resulted in the Arkansas prison blood scandal of the 1980s and 1990s.

In sworn testimony, Arkansas Commissioner of Corrections Robert Sarver confirmed that the racially segregated facilities were in deplorable condition and that trusties trafficked in drugs, jobs, alcohol, food, and sex. He testified that prisoners were frequently sexually assaulted, that there was no satisfactory mechanism for keeping weapons out of their hands, and that attacks on inmates resulted in injury and death.

In strong language, the court ordered the respondents to promptly eliminate the unconstitutional conditions “that have caused the Court to condemn the System….The lives, safety, and health of human beings, to say nothing of their dignity, are at stake….Unless conditions at the Penitentiary farms are brought up to a level of constitutional tolerability, the farms can no longer be used for the confinement of convicts.” In 1971, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision. The case was remanded to the district court to establish the respondents’ progress in addressing the constitutional violations and to enter further orders as needed.

The United States Supreme Court reviewed the case in 1978, hearing oral arguments on February 21 and handing down a decision on June 23. The chief question before the Court was whether more than thirty days in isolation could be considered "cruel and unusual punishment" as forbidden by the United States Constitution. The Court affirmed Judge Henley's findings and rulings in all particulars.

Holt v. Sarver set the stage for other successful challenges of the cumulative effect of conditions of confinement by prisoners in several Southern states, most significantly by Texas prisoners in the case of Ruiz v. Estelle. This case continues to have clear implications for understanding the current situation in American prisons in the United States and abroad (e.g., Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay), as well as the role of prisoners and the judiciary in ensuring the constitutionality of conditions of confinement.

For additional information:
Holt v. Sarver I: Holt v. Sarver, 300 F. Supp 825 (1969).

Holt v. Sarver II: Holt v. Sarver, 309 F. Supp 362 (1970), aff'd. 442 F.2d 304 (8th Cir. 1974).

Murton, Tom. Crime and Punishment in Arkansas: Adventures in Wonderland. Stillwater, OK: 1985.

Schmalleger, Frank, and John Oritz Smykla. Corrections in the 21st Century. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007.

Spiller, D. P. After Decision: Implementation of Judicial Decrees in Correctional Settings: A Case Study of Holt v. Sarver. Rockville, MD: National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, 1976.  

Dorothy S. McClellan
Texas A&M University Corpus Christi

Last Updated 8/9/2013

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