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Charles Robert (Bob) Sarver was a war veteran, a lawyer, and the first man appointed commissioner of the Arkansas Department of Correction, established in 1968. Named commissioner during the administration of Governor Winthrop Rockefeller, Sarver sought to institute reforms based on a modern and enlightened approach to corrections. He was one of the litigants in the landmark Holt v. Sarver case, which ruled that Arkansas’s prisons were unconstitutional. After leaving the Department of Correction, Sarver worked as a prison consultant and was a college professor in Little Rock (Pulaski County).
Bob Sarver was born in Fairmont, West Virginia, on January 3, 1931, to Pennsylvania natives Charles Leasure Sarver and Tenie Elizabeth McCurdy Sarver. His father was an accountant, and his mother was a registered nurse.
Known for his sense of humor, Sarver was named “Funniest Boy” by his 1948 Fairmont High School class. After graduating from high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Army in January 1951. He served in the Korean War as an intelligence and reconnaissance scout-observer in the Thirty-second Infantry. He was awarded several medals, including the Korean Service Medal and the United States Service Medal. In November 1952, Sarver was wounded by a missile and hospitalized. He recovered, returned to duty, and was formally discharged in January 1954.
In September 1953, Sarver married Doris L. Shaffer in Marion, West Virginia. The couple later divorced.
Sarver attended West Virginia University, earning a BA and a Juris Doctorate. After graduating from law school, Sarver briefly worked at a legal firm before becoming an assistant prosecuting attorney. In 1966, he was appointed director of corrections for West Virginia, and he was then hired in November 1968 during Governor Rockefeller’s first term to overhaul Arkansas’s troubled prison system after the firing of controversial reformer Tom Murton earlier that year.
Under Sarver’s tenure, prison living quarters were fully racially integrated, the trusty system was discontinued (though not immediately phased out), and a chapel was built at Tucker prison farm with a donation from musician Johnny Cash (who had originally intended his donation for a chapel at Cummins prison farm). Sarver also accompanied Rockefeller at Cummins prison farm for Cash’s April 1969 concert, the only time Cash played for convicts in his home state. At the event, Sarver noted that Cash had said some things Sarver “was afraid to say.”
With the Arkansas General Assembly unwilling to provide funds to end the harsh conditions at the prisons, Sarver assisted inmates in filing a lawsuit. The result was a group of cases known as Holt v. Sarver. Sarver was a defendant in the case, but he presented testimony helpful to the plaintiffs, saying that the racially segregated facilities were in deplorable condition and that prison trusties trafficked in drugs, jobs, alcohol, food, and sex. He testified that prisoners were frequently sexually assaulted, that there was no way to keep weapons out of prisoners’ hands, and that attacks on inmates sometimes resulted in injury and death. In February 1970, Judge J. Smith Henley ruled that the Arkansas prison system was unconstitutional according to the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
In September 1970, Tom Murton, who had published a bestselling book the previous year concerning his experiences in Arkansas, appeared on the popular late-night talk show The Dick Cavett Show. Murton emphasized the horrifying conditions in Arkansas’s prisons and claimed that the conditions had worsened under Sarver. In response, Sarver appeared on the same show on October 21. Sarver said that Murton was fired for being “too honest,” and though he sympathized with Murton and agreed with the need for serious prison reform, Sarver defended his accomplishments as commissioner and the policies of the Rockefeller administration.
On November 2, 1970, the night before the gubernatorial election, armed inmates at the Cummins Unit took several other prisoners hostage after a failed escape attempt. Sarver and Cummins superintendent Bill Steed agreed to an exchange of hostages in order to appease the inmates. Neither Sarver nor Steed were hurt, but the two men were held for over six hours before the inmates released them.
Despite Sarver’s accomplishments, serious problems at the prison continued, such as clashes between black and white inmates in November 1970. Sarver was critical of the “Old Guard” who were reluctant to modernize the prisons, and the election of Democrat Dale Bumpers to the governorship in November 1970 left Sarver politically vulnerable. The Bumpers administration pursued prison reform, but it sought a new commissioner (although the governor did not have the legal power to appoint a commissioner). In March 1971, the Board of Corrections, with Bumpers’s blessing, replaced Sarver with Terrell Don Hutto, a Texan.
After leaving the Department of Correction, Sarver served as an expert witness in prison cases. He also worked as a consultant, helping to improve conditions at prisons around the country. He eventually was hired by the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR), where he taught in the Graduate School of Social Work and later served as an administrator. Sarver also focused on childcare and adult daycare reform, advocating for federal and state regulations and better licensing practices.
In the late 1970s, Sarver was diagnosed with lung cancer. During periods of remission, he continued his public service activities. In July 1985 in Little Rock, he married Frankie Wallingsford, a native of El Dorado (Union County). While physicians often restricted him from working due to his illness, Sarver remained committed to the social causes he had championed all of his life.
On January 17, 1989, Sarver died from cancer. He is buried in Mount Holly Cemetery in Little Rock.
For additional information:C. Robert Sarver Papers. Center for Arkansas History and Culture. University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Little Rock, Arkansas.
“Cummins Inmates Free Hostages.” Pine Bluff Commercial, November 3, 1970, p. 1.
“Lawyer Who Helped Spur Changes In State Prison System Dies at 58.” Arkansas Gazette, January 18, 1989, p. 1B, 3B.
“West Virginia Lawyer Gets Correction Job.” Arkansas Gazette, November 9, 1968, p. 4F.
Winthrop Rockefeller Collection. Center for Arkansas History and Culture. University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Little Rock, Arkansas.
Colin Woodward Lee Family Digital Archive, Stratford Hall
Last Updated 4/20/2017
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