The Return of the Chain Gang


Following the end of the Civil War several changes came about in the South with regard to the punishment of offenders.  Essentially what took place were other forms of slavery whereby black citizens were kept “in their place.”  One of the most notorious was the convict lease system whereby large numbers of prisoners (mostly black) were released from the prison during the day to work (with no wages) for private companies – in the mines, railroads, etc.  Former slaves – now locked up for mostly minor offenses – helped re-build the war-torn South.  The prison populations experienced incredible growth and shifted from almost all-white to almost all-black in just a few years.

            The convict lease system eventually was replaced by other forms of punishment and slavery.  Among the replacements included what came to be called “plantation prisons” such as Cummins Prison Farm in Arkansas and Parchman in Mississippi. Another method was the infamous “chain gang” whereby prisoners would be housed in what amounted to “sweathouses” and went out everyday to work on road repairs and other projects for local governments and/or businesses. One notorious chain gang was called by one writer “The American Siberia.” This particular chain gang was a camp in Florida, where turpentine was extracted in a semi-tropical jungle atmosphere where the only labor that could be obtained was that of convicts. The writer descried it this way: “Prisoners worked in gangs, chained together in filthy bunkhouses, exposed to dysentery and scurvy.”

Another writer gave the following graphic description of this system:  “Chained together in fetid bunkhouses, suffering malnutrition and exposed to rampant disease, these hapless charges suffered one of history's most degrading punishments.”  It should be noted that the vast majority of those on these chain gangs were African-Americans, often convicted for merely being black.

If you think chain gangs are part of the distant past, think again. In Maricopa County, Arizona (Phoenix), Sheriff Joe Arpaio is the self-proclaimed “the toughest sheriff in America.”  He requires his inmates “to enroll in chain gangs to perform various community services. The alternative is lockdown with three other inmates in an 8- by 12-foot cell, for 23 hours a day. Chain gang participants wear uniforms with black and white stripes, to ‘make examples’ of the bad prisoners to the community.” He also makes them wear pink underwear. More than 2,000 inmates are placed in tents outside the jail. You can imagine what that may be like in the summer where temperatures average well over 100 degrees. One report noted that he had 15 women “padlocked together by the ankle, five to each chain, and marched military style out to a van that transported them to their work site -- a county cemetery half an hour out of the city in the desert. The women had to bury the bodies of indigents who had died in the streets or in the hospital without family and without the money to pay for a proper funeral.”

In Ohio, another ultra-conservative Sheriff has introduced chain gangs, as has the state of Florida.

The linked with slavery has not gone unnoticed. One report noted that the re-introduction of chain gangs in Alabama became “a new roadside attraction.” A very popular one apparently, reflected in the following statement by a spectator: “I love seeing ‘em in chains. They ought to make them pick cotton.” 

Most of the arguments put forth by supporters revolve around two issues, both of which ignore race: saving money and deterrence.  Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio uses old-fashioned common-sense deterrence logic, saying that “I use it for deterrence to fight crime. I put them right on the street where everyone can see them. If a kid asks his mother, she can tell them this is what happens to people who break the law.” When inmates complain he merely says “If you don't like it, don't come back.” However, a spokeswoman in his jail told a reporter that “60 percent of inmates did in fact come back for more than one term.”   

The fact that most of these prisoners are black seems to escape the notice of supporters of chain gangs, but not several critics.  One critic’s comment on the re-introduction of chain gangs in Alabama, sounds vaguely familiar: “A group of men, most of them black, chained to each other like animals, being marched along dusty country roads to perform meaningless but painful labor: here is an inspiring vignette for the direction taken by the American criminal justice system.” 


© 2007 by Randall G. Shelden. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.