Link to the Past : The return of chain gangs is not about hard labor. For Alabama, it’s good PR in a crime-weary world. For inmates, it’s humiliation that weighs heavier than leg irons.
The sun is just cresting above the bountiful fields of turnip greens that roll away from the Limestone Correctional Facility, but the three photographers here this morning are already busy. The misty early light is fabulous.
The 400 convicts who will form the day’s chain gangs are being led in squads of 40 from their mass barracks to the recreation yard, through checkout at the gate and on toward the perimeter road that encircles the prison, where the guards await, shotguns balanced on their hips, sucking cigarettes and hawking phlegm, talking wife and truck, pros and cons.
It is damp and still, except for the warblers and the sounds of shutters clicking as the photographers move closer. The inmates are not talking yet but hugging themselves and stomping their feet in the cool air of dawn. The tracking dogs, pampered bloodhounds, are asleep in their kennels.
In groups of five, the prisoners, dressed in white, approach the guards and then kneel before them. The bright metal chains come out of their wooden boxes, clinking and rattling, and then the men are strung together, ankle to ankle, five on a leash.
It seems like the old days, the long-ago time. But the images are modern, a stereotyped Dixie porn of the bad old South rising from the grave, old scenes of young black men shuffling along in chains under the glare of shotgun-toting white guards wearing dark shades. But now, some of the guards are black. Now, some of the prisoners are white. Yet the basics are intact.
It is a spectacle. And that is intentional. The prisoners loathe the chains. The voting public loves them. But, in truth, a convenience store clerk works harder than a convict on the new chain gang.
There is something going on in Alabama, something about the nature of punishment. But it may not be exactly what you think.
It is easy to visit a prison in Alabama. The colorful commissioner of corrections, Ron Jones, wants it that way. “The more press,” he says, “the better.”
Television crews are invited to spend a week. There is total access. Jones often hosts visiting politicians and correctional professionals. “The dog and pony show,” he calls the tours.
Arizona and Florida have now followed Alabama’s lead and returned chain gangs to the landscape. Mississippi is next. Corrections officials from Michigan and Wisconsin are considering pilot programs. There is something about the notion of hard labor, punishment for punishment’s sake, that appeals to an electorate scared of crime, fed up with what it sees as coddling.
When the first chain gangs went to work along the roadsides here in May, Jones presided over the event, which drew hundreds of reporters and photographers, including representatives from Japan and Europe. The French and Germans, in particular, seem fascinated by the shackled men.
Jones’ picture was seen around the world. Smoking his menthols, with a bad tie that did not cover his belly, he looked the part of the Southern redneck lawman. Except that Ron Jones is actually from Evansville, Ind., and holds a doctorate in demographic analysis from the University of Missouri. Before he began his work in prisons, Jones spent his days analyzing population trends in the former Soviet Union and, later, ferreting out Medicaid fraud.
Today he sits in his conference room in the state capital of Montgomery. Behind him is one of his favorite props: a length of heavy chain and a 65-pound ball. That is the old chain gang. The new chain gang is a very different enterprise. Safe, efficient, high-tech and Postmodern--meaning that the chains are a reference as much as they are a restraint. The inmates know it.
In the Old South, convicts sent to the chain gangs were leased to private individuals and corporations as dirt-cheap labor to build levees and railroads. They were often worked to death.
At the time, a crusading editor of the New Orleans Daily Picayune called the practice so inhumane that a death sentence would be more merciful. The gangs were said to be cheaper than slaves. There was an almost inexhaustible supply of new convicts because there was no hierarchy of punishment; people went to the gangs for vagrancy or petty theft or drunkenness, as well as for murder, robbery and rape.
It’s not so different today. Most of the prisoners are on the gangs for violating probation or parole. Their original crime may have been heinous, but what got them here is often just getting high in public or stealing a T-shirt or kiting a check.
The old, leased chain gangs were discontinued after protests by organized labor, which opposed the practice of using convicts as strikebreakers. But the gangs continued building public works for the Southern states until the 1960s, when widespread abuses led to reform and, finally, extinction.
The resurrection of chain crews comes at a time when the nation is weary of rehabilitation and eager for retribution. But the real issue, Jones says, is about one thing: Economics.
The Alabama prison population, more violent and less educated each year, is growing by 1,000 beds annually. The state assembly, like most others, keeps passing longer mandatory sentences. In Alabama, more than 60 youths age 16 or younger are in state prisons. Increasingly, courts are choosing to try juveniles as adults.
The fact is, chains are a bargain-basement cop. One officer can guard 40 chained prisoners but only 20 without chains. They also can be housed in mass “disciplinary” barracks. Jones says the chain gangs now offer Alabama judges a legal but “very harsh in-your-face sentence” for repeat offenders--but also a sentence that is shorter and therefore less expensive. It’s cheaper, it’s quicker, and the public feels the state is getting tough on crime.
“Instead of sending a parole violator back to prison to finish out his sentence, for three, four, five years, why not give him six months on the chain gang and see if that doesn’t get his attention?” Jones argues.
He does not have much patience for “the hand-holding and psycho-social babble” of that wing of the corrections community he dismisses as “the therapists.”
That is not to say Jones does not believe in mind games. In fact, chain gangs may be the ultimate mind game.
“You always give inmates a choice,” Jones says, smiling. Because the punch line is that the choice is always between bad and worse.
What does it feel like to be chained?
“Like being a dog,” says Emanuel Jenkins, a 39-year-old thief, arrested for stealing a bag of clothes and thereby violating his parole, which landed him on the chain gang.
“I see now how that dog on a chain feels. Mentally, it’s worse than anything. . . . You got to have one on your leg to know what I’m talking about.”
Indeed, Jones and his wardens and their guards are only too happy to let reporters or photographers put on the shackles. It is an important prop in the show.
When the chain gangs began at Limestone Correctional Facility, the crews cut weeds and picked up trash along the highways in the hills of northern Alabama outside Huntsville. In a few weeks, they had cleared hundreds of miles of road, and so Jones had to think of other work for them to do. He hit upon the idea of busting rocks, so much like the old days, but different.
Most of the chain gangs at Limestone now spend their days on the rock pile. After the prisoners kneel and are shackled together with their lightweight leg irons, they walk a few hundred feet from the prison walls into a new enclosure, sort of a cattle pen of barbed wire--if cattle needed to be watched from guard towers. With the new enclosure, to say nothing of the guards with orders to shoot escaping prisoners, why the chains?
The chains are the whole point. If they did not wear chains, they would not be a chain gang. The media don’t come from France to see a prison work crew.
Oddly, this is not really about work. Each squad of 40 men spends 20 minutes on the rock pile, per hour, and 40 minutes resting. In 20 minutes on the pile, each man may actually swing one of the 15-pound sledgehammers for five or, at most, 10 minutes.
Most do not even do this. They take a few whacks at the rocks and lean back. If a guard cares to shout at them, they take another few licks. Like building the pyramids. But less useful. The busted-up rock is used to cover the prison roads. It would be cheaper to buy crushed rock.
The fact is, it is in no one’s interest for these men to be worked very hard. There is no “product” to be produced, no output to measure and catalog. Out here, there is a grudging stasis, a sullen status quo everyone can live with. The men work, but not very hard. They grumble, but not very much. There will be no roadside insurrections. The dogs will stay in their kennels.
Sgt. M.A. Pelzer has been working with inmates at Limestone for 10 years. He calls himself “the highest-paid baby sitter in the state.” He agrees that the inmates are not exactly killing themselves with hard labor. He believes the guards work much harder and are not allowed to sprawl on the ground smoking cigarettes, as the members of the chain gang spend most of the day at the rock pile.
“The liberals and the news media forget these poor inmates are criminals and that for each one of them there is a victim someplace,” Pelzer says, watching over the men, who keep shuffling from spot to spot, asking for new boots or permission to urinate or some other little, almost pitiful favor.
Theoretically, prisons are preventive, protective, punitive and preparatory--designed to keep dangerous people away from the rest of us, to deter crime, to inflict punishment and humiliation, and to rehabilitate. At least, that was the theory. The chain gangs shuffle those goals, prioritize them and discard the nonessentials. Basically, chain gangs are about humiliation, the modern-day equivalent of the ducking stool.
Pelzer says he does not want to be seen as some kind of redneck. He cares about his job.
“We throw our children away, in bad homes, bad schools, bad environments,” he says. “And this is what we get 10 years later.” He shrugs. It is the way it is.
When the chain gangs were first displayed to the public, Jones insisted that the five-man crews be racially mixed to represent the demographics of his prison population, which in Alabama is 60% black and 40% white. He did not want the world to think the new practice racist.
No more. The five men leashed together are now allowed to form their own groups, and so blacks are mostly chained to blacks, whites to whites. The guards say this is better. Less fighting.
The black inmates resting a few feet from the rock pile say they feel like slaves. And the white prisoners say they feel they are being treated like blacks. Is this not a mind game? The work of busting rock or picking up trash on the highway is nothing. It is the chains.
“These white boys are just like sprinklings on a cake,” says Arthur Colven, 37, black and in the chain gang as a habitual offender, a drug dealer. Colven sees racism. He carries a soda bottle filled with water strung to his waist with a pair of shoelaces.
The warden is black. Two of seven guards today are black. One black correctional officer, Ollie Prince, wearing his blue fatigues and black boots, shotgun ready to rack and fire, says: “Slavery? If it were all black, I’d give it some thought. But since it’s black and white, it’s not.”
Whether the chains will rankle the men enough to persuade them to avoid crime is, of course, unknown. The commissioner, a fan of computers and studies, says he will keep a close eye on recidivism and discipline.
Some of the men on the chain gang are career criminals, and a few admit that, though they hate being shackled, they like the shorter sentences and will probably return to the “free world” and commit more felonies.
But others seem deeply concerned about the chains and confessed they feel shame. In May, one young man said simply, “I hate to think of my people seeing me like this.”
The chains clearly serve a purpose. To the men, the chains are real enough. They pull at each other. They fuss over their position on the leash, like dogs fighting for alpha status. They really hate these chains. They rattle. They remind. Rehabilitation or revenge? The shackles are still new. They shine like a mirror.