It’s been said before, but bears repeating: Visitors who come to Arkansas looking for an authentic 19th-century experience could get their fill by touring the state prison system. This is the place where administrators have free domestic servants (prisoners), free housing, free utilities and free food. That’s in addition to the wardens’ salaries, ranging from $45,000 to $70,000 a year, according to the local daily newspaper.
Not a bad gig, and if you’re looking for this antique featherbed you’ll find it only in Arkansas. All other American prison systems, including Southern states like Louisiana and Mississippi that were as notorious as Arkansas for their gothic darkness, have long since abandoned this method of padding salaries. They recognized it as an open door to corruption, and they’ve learned the painful lesson of leaving that door open. Arkansas has not.
By most accounts, the Arkansas prison system is better than it was. At the very least, it’s no longer the ghastly Grand Guignol that shocked the world during the second half of the 20th century. Only after federal watchdogs were called in did prison officials and legislators finally correct most of the abuses. Most, but not all.
A few select lucky duckies get the freebies, which are known in prison parlance as “emoluments” but have now become entitlements. The cost to the Arkansas taxpayer is unknown, hidden behind a deliberately arcane accounting system. The newspaper estimated the tab at $810,000 a year. There is no evidence that these entitlements trickle down to rank-and-file prison workers, the people on the front lines who come face to face with the toughest cases every day. Their starting salaries vary between $22,000 and $29,000, with no free food, no free rent and no free maids and butlers to pick up the kids, run the vacuum and do the laundry.
Yet it doesn’t matter if it costs $800 or $800 million. It doesn’t matter who receives it or who doesn’t. This system fosters an even worse kind of corruption – the corruption of the human spirit through the medieval concept of indentured servitude, something now found only in the most backward parts of the world, and Arkansas.
No one should ignore this shameful situation. Not the public, not the legislators and certainly not a governor with presidential aspirations. Sooner or later, this system will expose itself for what it is, and ambitious politicians won’t be able to say they didn’t know it was there all along.