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’Brubaker’ busts Arkansas prison system

 

During the 1940s and ’50s we lived in the small community of Deer Creek in Grant County, Oklahoma. None of us ever dreamed that Tom Murton, a young neighbor boy who grew up a mile from Nancy’s family’s rural home, would three decades later be portrayed by actor Robert Redford as “Brubaker” on the movie screens across America.

In 1950, four years after this modest, soft-spoken young man graduated from high school, he graduated from Oklahoma A&M College with a degree in animal husbandry. During the 1950s he completed additional degrees in mathematics and criminology.

Soon after Alaska’s statehood in 1959, Murton was hired to create an Alaskan correctional system. In 1967, the high marks he got for his Alaskan work influenced Winthrop Rockefeller, the new governor of Arkansas, to hire him as Arkansas’ warden the first professional penologist ever hired in Arkansas.

At that same time, Gov. Rockefeller ordered the release of a report on Arkansas’ prison system, a report his predecessor, Gov. Orval Faubus, ordered written, then suppressed. The 67-page report detailed the horrific conditions at Arkansas’ Tucker and Cummins state penal farms. They included endemic sexual assault, electrical torture, flogging, beatings with blackjacks, etc.

The report also revealed the inmates’ open marketing of illegal drugs and alcohol, and a host of other malicious and criminal practices. Particularly ironic was the report of poor quality food being fed the prisoners, even though the prison farms they worked on marketed produce and dairy products worth a million dollars annually.

Contrastingly, Murton’s ideas on prison reform included treating prisoners with respect, abolishing corporal punishment, providing better food, rooting out extortion, and other rackets among the inmates.

Shortly after he arrived in Arkansas, Murton learned from an inmate informant that as many as 200 bodies were buried on prison grounds. Early in February 1968, Murton ordered excavations at the Cummins farm. After three bodies were uncovered, Gov. Rockefeller halted the excavations even though there were at least 15 more depressions clearly visible. The governor claimed that Murton’s excavations had become a “sideshow.”

Although these burials took place before Gov. Rockefeller’s 1967 inauguration, his administration was severely embarrassed by the national attention created as a result of that prior brutality Murton exposed. Gov. Rockefeller’s official report on the matter, written by the Arkansas State Police, promoted the position that the bodies must have been from a paupers’ cemetery a mile away.

Less than a year after his 1967 hiring, Murton’s actions had disturbed the Rockefeller administration to the extent that two months after the three bodies were exhumed, he was fired. He was told he had 24 hours to get out of the state or be arrested for grave robbing, a charge that could bring a 21-year sentence in Arkansas. He left the state.

In 1969, Murton and co-author, Joe Hyams, published Accomplices to the Crime: the Arkansas Prison Scandal. Following its publication, Tom was unable to find work in the correctional industry; his prison administration career ended. He believed he had been blackballed for his Arkansas stand.

In 1980, a fictionalized film based on that Murton-Hyams book was produced. The very popular film, titled “Brubaker,” with Robert Redford as Warden Henry Brubaker, was nominated for an Oscar.

Ten years later, Thomas O. Murton died of cancer at 62 years. He is buried in Deer Creek’s Bayard Cemetery under a plain military-style tombstone inscribed: “Thomas O’Rhelius Murton, 1st Lt, U.S. Army, March 15, 1928, October 10, 1990.” Tom did the right thing. We respect and honor him.

Ken and Nan Webster have collected inspiration for many years from many sources, and now inspire readers of “A Matter That Matters.” Contact them at kennanco@gmail.com or visit www.kennancompany.com.

 
 
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