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The Return of the Chain Gang

In my previous blog I referenced a recent book by Douglas Blackmon on the subject of convict leasing.  One of the enduring offshoots of this system has been the "chain gang," popularized by the film "Cool Hand Luke" (with Paul Newman, which carefully tried to make it seem as if it were mostly white) and memorialized in several books (e.g., "I am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang" -- also made into a movie, again trying to be race-neutral).  Chain gangs began in the South around the turn of the 20th century and continued until at least the mid-1950s -- at least as far as we can tell. Douglas Blackmon reports that in 1930 the state of Georgia had more than 8,000 men (almost all black) working in chain gangs, following a conviction for a minor offense. Part of the rationale was the system was punitive and profitable. Such a system was a classic example of the old principle of "less eligibility" -- that conditions within a prison should be worse than the lowest form of existence in the "free world."

Chain gangs came under harsh criticism from time to time because of its cruelties and were officially abolished during the Civil Rights era.

But they made a comeback, starting in 1995, in, not surprisingly, Alabama, in addition to Florida. Following a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the practice was abolished within a year. However, in 2000, efforts began to reintroduce the practice. The link 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 those on chain gangs have been and continue to be African Americans.

The chain gang is still very much alive in Maricopa County, Arizona (Phoenix), where Sheriff Joe Arpaio (the self-proclaimed "toughest sheriff in America") puts his inmates to work in chain gangs to perform various community services. Chain gang participants wear uniforms with black and white stripes. He also makes them wear pink underwear. In 2003 he began using female prisoners in their own chain gangs. (See this story).


There was a proposal to reintroduce chain gangs again in both Alabama and Florida states during 2007 and 2008 to help with their budget crisis. It is uncertain whether or not this came to pass. (http://blog.cleveland.com/metro/2009/05/ohio_delays_giving_inmates_lai.html; http://southernhiv.wordpress.com/2007/09/10/florida-budget-three-ring-circus-and-chain-gangs/.)

Keywords: adult corrections, prisons, Randall Shelden

Posted in Blog, Correctional Institutions

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