Nearly half a century after the Civil War, the southern states’ prison systems, with a largely black population, comprised two models of outdoor convict labor: The prison farm and the road chain gang. The chain gang started in Georgia in 1908 and was envisioned as a progressive penal reform movement, the direct consequence of the ending of the convict lease system, as well as public demand for improved transportation. Chain gangs flourished throughout the South and by the 1920s and 1930s chained prisoners, mostly black, became a common sight along southern roadways. Georgia grasped the economic and social benefits of the chain gang, which soon developed into the “good roads movement.” “Bad boys,” a Georgia folk saying went, “make good roads.” Hired labor and even conscription had proved unreliable in the past, as free men were not disposed to work the roads if they could help it. Advocates for the good roads movement considered it advantageous to the state if convicts were made to serve their time building roads without creating unfair competition with labor. On a “humanitarian” level, proponents claimed that it would take the convict out of his cramped cell and provide him with work in the fresh air and sunshine. The federal government under, the auspices of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Office of Public Roads, joined in and spearheaded the movement as a way to modernize the South’s economy.
Magazine editorials applauded Georgia for having abolished the convict lease program, and for building more good roads than any other Southern state, encouraging other states to follow its lead. The race factor, for the most part, enhanced the enthusiasm for the chain gang as there was overwhelming white support for the good roads movement. The tragic plight of the black lawbreaker, however, was not diminished by the shift from the lease system to county chain gangs. To a southern black prisoner there was little difference between his situation as a slave on the plantation, as a leased convict forced to toil in the coal mine, or as a chained prison worker on the roads. The chained southern black man on the southern county road had been transformed from the plantation owner’s chattel into a “slave of the state.”
Georgia’s reform efforts merely shifted the atrocities from the private to the public sector. For southern whites the chain gang had much of the attraction of the legacy of slavery. The state now became the actual master responsible for the welfare of a growing pool of forced black labor. Black prisoners labored and even slept together, with chains fastened through their feet and around their ankles. Their rations were infested with maggots. With an armed white overseer, the black convict slaved from sunup to sundown. Brutalities, corporal punishments (beatings with a leather strap, thumpings with rifle butts and clubs) and outright torture, were commonplace. Major atrocities, such as the staking treatment (chaining an inmate between stakes and pouring molasses over his body while flies, bees and other insects crawled all over him); the sweat box treatment (locking a prisoner for days into a wooden box that was neither high enough to stand nor deep enough to sit, while temperatures exceeded one hundred degrees); and the Georgia rack (stretching the inmate between two hooks with a cable and a turn crank) were all meted out for the most trivial disobedience.
Chain gangs had a brief existence, as economic forces played a central role in their demise. During the Great Depression, as jobs became scarce, criticism was heard that convict chain gangs took work that rightfully belonged to free labor. The government stopped providing federal funds to finance roads built using convict labor. Enthusiasm for chain gangs also decreased as the number of white convicts on the roads increased. By the 1940s, chain gangs had almost vanished. The last few chained prisoners were pulled off the roads when Georgia finally eliminated the practice in the early 1960s.
The media contributed significantly to the practice’s demise. Films ranging from Meryn LeRoy’s graphic expose, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) to Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke (1967) showed the atrocities of the system. As shameful as the abuses chronicled in the movies were, they could not capture the raw vivid details of
everyday life suffered by black convicts on the chain gang. Prisoners were restrained at all times with heavy chains that were riveted around their ankles and were only removed (by a chisel) when the convict was released. At night another long chain was run between his legs, so that every man was connected to every other man, and no one was able to go to the toilet (a hole in the floor) without waking everybody on the chain gang. In the movies, the protagonists were mostly white, while in reality, the racial composition of the chain gangs were disproportionately African American. It took white actors, however, to generate a national scandal and shame a mostly Caucasian audience.
Half a century after their disappearance, convicts working in shackles once again became a sight on southern roads. The practice was reinitiated in 1995, when four hundred convicts, predominately black, were marshaled into a chain gang, at the Limestone Correctional Facility in Alabama. The reemergence of the chain gang began when Ron Jones, a prison warden, recommended it to gubernatorial candidate Forrest “Fob” James as a “get tough on crime” measure. Once elected, Governor James, with overwhelming white support, established chain gangs, alleging that it was an effective crime deterrent that made Alabama a safer place for the law-abiding citizen. The governor added that he reintroduced chain gangs because some convicts found prison life much too easy, and that they ought to be out working hard rather than cuddled by lifting weights and watching cable TV. Arizona, Florida, Massachusetts, Iowa and Wisconsin shortly joined Alabama. In Arizona, women inmates also began to work on a chain gang, burying dead indigent bodies. Juvenile chain gangs shortly became yet another manifestation of the practice.
Commentators have urged that the chain gang’s historical connection to slavery is indisputable, and that the practice offends human dignity and should be condemned as a form of cruel and unusual punishment under the mandate of the Eighth Amendment. Other critics have pointed to the Thirteenth Amendment, although its constitutional prohibition on involuntary servitude specifically provides an exception for those convicted of crime. Although the Supreme Court has prohibited many forms of prison abuse, it has not specifically addressed the constitutionality of chain gangs. The Court has, however, condemned Alabama’s “hitching post practice” (chaining convicts to a hitching post for over a seven-hour period where they were exposed to the heat of the sun, deprived of bathroom breaks, and subjected to prolonged thirst and taunting) as gratuitous infliction of wanton and unnecessary pain in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Additionally, in response to a civil action by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the state of Alabama reluctantly, without admitting that chain gangs violated the Eighth Amendment’s “cruel and unusual punishment” clause, agreed to end the practice of shackling convict work crews together.
The spectacle of black prisoners in chains is powerfully linked to the images of slavery serving as a forceful reminder of their heritage of racial oppression in America. It brings to mind southern slave auctions where black families, linked by leg irons and iron collars, were sold and transported to the plantations. After the Civil War when slavery was abolished, southern states passed Jim Crow laws to hinder migration and control freed blacks. Blacks found guilty of these laws were forced to work as convict contract workers, and on the prison farms and southern roads in chains. The iron chains were the emblem of degradation and humiliation. The states that have revived and continue to use chain gangs (a practice embedded into the cultural history of oppression of an entire race) undermine the moral legitimacy of their criminal justice system.
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