In 1838 Governor of Arkansas James S. Conway signed legislation that permitted the establishment of the state's first penitentiary, the Arkansas State Penitentiary. In 1839 the State of Arkansas purchased a 92.41-acre (37.40 ha) tract in Little Rock where the first penitentiary was built; now the site houses the Arkansas State Capitol. From 1849 to 1893 the State of Arkansas leased its convicted felons to private individuals. After abuses became publicized, the state assumed direct control of felons. The state continued to have prison labor be hired to contractors, manufacturers, and planters until 1913. In 1899 the state signed legislation that lead to the move of the penitentiary to a new 15-acre (6.1 ha) site southwest of Little Rock. The prison, called "The Walls," opened in 1910. In 1902 the state purchased land that became the Cummins Unit. In 1913 act 55, signed into law, lead to the establishment of a permanent execution chamber in the state prison system. In 1916 the state purchased the land which became the Tucker Unit. In 1933 Junius Marion Futrell, then the governor, closed the penitentiary in Little Rock and transferred the prisoners to Cummins and Tucker, and the execution chamber was moved to Tucker.
In 1943 the state established the State Penitentiary Board through Act 1. In 1951 the state established the State Reformatory for Women through act 351. The state moved the functions of the Arkansas State Training School for Girls to the state prison system. In 1968 the state reorganized the penitentiary system into the Arkansas Department of Correction through Act 50.
In 2014 the state made a call for cities to submit bids to host a new maximum security prison.
For the diagnostic process, male inmates go to the Ouchita River Correctional Unit in Malvern, and women go to the McPherson Unit in Newport. Male death row inmates are housed at the Varner Super Max Unit while women with death sentences are received at McPherson. The death chamber is located at the Cummins Unit.  Previously the Diagnostic Unit in Pine Bluff was the intake unit for male prisoners.
After the intake process, most inmates go to a "parent unit" for their initial assignment. The male parent units are Cummins, East Arkansas, Grimes, Tucker, and Varner. The McPherson Unit is the female parent unit. The exceptions to the parent unit process are made for prisoners going to boot camp (the boot camp is in the Wrightsville Unit, unincorporated Pulaski County), health reasons, and security reasons. The initial assignments last for at least 60 days. Inmates may be moved to other units based on behavior, institutional needs, job availability, and available space.
Death row inmates are located at the Varner Unit's Supermax, while the executions are performed at the Cummins Unit, adjacent to Varner. The female death row is located at the McPherson Unit. In 1999 the female death row was newly inaugurated.
In 1974 male death row inmates, previously at the Tucker Unit, were moved to the Cummins Unit. In 1986 male death row inmates were moved to the Maximum Security Unit. On Friday August 22, 2003, all 39 Arkansas death row inmates, all of them male, were moved to the Supermax at the Varner Unit.
As of June 3, 2015 the ADC has 18,681 prisoners. This is an increase from 1977, when it had 2,519 prisoners. After a parole violator was accused of committing a 2013 murder, the Arkansas Board of Corrections changed the conditions of parole, stating that any parolee accused of committing a felony must have his/her parole revoked, even if he/she has not yet been convicted of that felony. This caused the prison population to increase.
|Barbara Ester Unit||off Highway 65 in Jefferson County, Pine Bluff|
|Benton Unit (capacity 325)||off Highway 67 in Saline County, 5 miles (8 km) south of Benton|
|Boot Camp Program (capacity 212)||off Highway 15 in Jefferson County, 25 miles (40 km) northeast of Pine Bluff|
|Cummins Unit||off Highway 65 in Lincoln County, 28 miles (45 km) south of Pine Bluff|
|Delta Regional Unit (capacity 599)||in Chicot County, 50 miles (80 km) southeast of Pine Bluff|
|East Arkansas Regional Unit||in Lee County, 17 miles (27 km) southeast of Forrest City|
|Grimes Unit||off Highway 384 in Jackson County, 4 miles (6 km) northeast of Newport|
|J. Aaron Hawkins Sr. Center (capacity 212)||off Highway 365 in Wrightsville, Pulaski County, 10 miles (16 km) south of Little Rock|
|Maximum Security Unit||off Highway 15 in Jefferson County, 25 miles (40 km) northeast of Pine Bluff|
|McPherson Unit||off Highway 384 in Jackson County, 4 miles (6 km) northeast of Newport|
|Mississippi County Work Release Center (capacity 121)||off Meadow Road in Mississippi County, 1 mile (2 km) west of Luxora|
|North Central Unit (capacity 800)||in Calico Rock, Izard County|
|Northwest Arkansas Work Release Center (capacity 100)||in Springdale, Washington County|
|Ouachita River Unit||off Highway 67 South in Hot Spring County, 2 miles (3 km) south of Malvern|
|Pine Bluff Unit (capacity 430)||off West 7th Street in Jefferson County, west of Pine Bluff|
|Randall L. Williams Correctional Center (capacity 562)||West of Pine Bluff, off West 7th St., (Pine Bluff Complex) in Jefferson County|
|Texarkana Regional Correction Center (capacity 128)||off East 5th Street in Texarkana, Miller County|
|Tucker Unit||off Highway 15 in Tucker, Jefferson County, 25 miles (40 km) northeast of Pine Bluff|
|Varner Unit||off Highway 65 in Varner, Lincoln County, 28 miles (45 km) south of Pine Bluff|
|Wrightsville Unit||off Highway 365 in Wrightsville, Pulaski County, 10 miles (16 km) south of Little Rock|
TRCC Unit in Texarkana