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Jesse Smith Henley (1917–1997)

Jesse Smith Henley presided over a number of desegregation cases but was most noted for reforming the state prison system and being the first federal judge in the country to declare an entire state penitentiary in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

Jesse Henley was born on May 18, 1917, in St. Joe (Searcy County) into a family of lawyers. He had one sibling, an older brother named Ben. Far from a model student, Henley never formally graduated from high school and seems to have been thrown out of college once. However, he did earn his law degree at the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville (Washington County) in 1941. He practiced law in Harrison (Boone County) from 1941 to 1954 while also serving briefly (1943–1945) as a federal referee in bankruptcy in the Western District of Arkansas.

An Eisenhower Republican, Henley served as associate general counsel of the Federal Communications Commission from 1954 to1956, then headed the Office of Administrative Procedure of the Justice Department from 1956 to 1958. Henley was appointed federal district judge of the Eastern District of Arkansas in January 1958 (later judge of both the Eastern and Western Districts), but his confirmation was delayed until September 1959 (though he sat by recess appointments). His nomination was held up in the Senate by Senator John McClellan of Arkansas, who accused him—wrongly—of participating in writing the opinion stating that the president had authority to send troops to Little Rock (Pulaski County) during the battle over the desegregation of Central High School.

From 1959 to 1975, as chief judge of the Eastern District of Arkansas, Henley at one point had a dozen or more school desegregation cases before him, including those involving Dollarway High School in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) and schools in North Little Rock (Pulaski County). He also ordered the desegregation of housing at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville, public parks, and swimming pools.

Henley’s most important decisions occurred primarily on the district bench and involved litigation over the Arkansas prison system. The Arkansas prison cases were among the first and most important examples of institutional litigation in which federal judges came to play an active role in the management of state hospitals for the mentally ill and institutions for the developmentally handicapped, juvenile training schools, jails, and prisons.

The Arkansas prison system had long been dominated by scandals caused by a mixture of corruption, mismanagement, and cruelty. With only one paid governmental employee for every fifty-eight prisoners, armed inmate guards (trusties) virtually ran the prisons, trafficking in food and liquor. Thievery, violence, and same-sex rape were endemic. Inmates were lashed with a wooden-handled leather strap five feet long and four inches wide and the “Tucker telephone” (a torture device in which the wires of a wall-mounted telephone were attached to the prisoner and an electric current sent through his body) was commonly used.

In an early prison suit, Henley ruled that the prison could not withhold reasonable medical attention from prisoners, and he instituted a ban on corporal punishment without appropriate safeguards. In 1968, Henley consolidated a batch of prisoners’ petitions, certified them as a class action, and appointed excellent attorneys to represent the class. In his 1970 decision of Holt v. Sarver, Henley held that the entire Arkansas prison system, a “brutal world run by brutal people,” violated the Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment.

Henley ruled in 1973 that the state’s prisons met constitutional standards, but the Court of Appeals reversed his decision, instructing Henley to retain supervision of the prison system. He became more involved in its management, overseeing hiring, training, and medical services.

Because of a desire by segregationists and others for a more pliable district judge in civil rights cases, talk of elevating Henley to the Court of Appeals began as early as 1962. However, it was not until Judge Pat Mehaffy of the U.S. Court of Appeals of the Eighth Circuit took senior status that Henley was slated by President Gerald Ford to be Mehaffy’s replacement. Once again, McClellan opposed his confirmation; this time he sought to ensure that a Democrat be appointed to the district bench. Henley was finally confirmed on March 13, 1975.

Henley continued to act as the trial judge in prison-related litigation after he was appointed to the Court of Appeals in 1975. After the Supreme Court commended Henley’s handling of the case Hutto v. Finney, Henley withdrew from the litigation to devote himself full time to the work of the Court of Appeals. The litigation ended with a consent decree of thirty-nine provisions in 1978, and the prisons were given a clean bill of health by Judge G. Thomas Eisele in 1982. What once had been run by a small group of corrupt officials and a large number of inmates had become a modern bureaucracy, governed by written rules and regulations, strong central leadership, and a staff of professionals.

Although Henley is likely to be most remembered as the overseer of Arkansas prisons, he was actually one of the more conservative judges on the Court of Appeals. He believed that, “as far as the government in general is concerned, except for certain basic functions, I’m against it, always have been and still am.” He also believed that “the federal courts are being used to seek redress for grievances never intended by Congress.”

Henley took senior status in 1982, vacating his seat but still working part time. He died on October 18, 1997, in Harrison.

For additional information:
Feeley, Malcolm M., and Edward L. Rubin. Judicial Policy Making and the Modern States: How the Courts Reformed America’s Prisons. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Henry, Patrick. “Judge who Reformed Prison System Dies.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. October 20, 1997, p. 1B.

Linder, Douglas O. “How Judges Judge: A Study of Disagreement in the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.” Arkansas Law Review 38 (1985): 479–519.  

Richard, Gregory L. “The Rule of Three: Federal Courts and Prison Farms in the Post-Segregation South.” Ph.D. diss., University of Memphis, 2013.


Jeffrey B. Morris
Touro College

Staff of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture

Last Updated 10/4/2013

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