Tired of a society that coddles criminals, two of three Spokane County commissioners want to bring back roadside chain gangs.
If voters approve an advisory question on the November ballot, prisoners in striped jumpsuits could be shackled together and swinging sickles on county roadsides by next year.
Commission Chairman Phil Harris is pushing what he and some of his constituents are calling “Phil’s Gang,” with the support of Commissioner Steve Hasson. Commissioner George Marlton, a lawyer and Democrat, favors putting inmates to work - but not in manacles.
“I think it’s great,” said Harris, who remembers seeing
chain gangs as a child growing up in the 1940s and ‘50s in Portsmouth, Va. “It made me a believer.”
Commonly regarded as barbaric, chain gangs lost favor three decades ago, particularly after the 1967 movie “Cool Hand Luke” starring Paul Newman.
But the concept of locking prisoners together and putting them on public display is making a comeback, fueled by public fears and frustrations.
Chain gangs returned to Limestone County, Ala., in May. They’re headed to Arizona, Michigan and Florida, buoyed by a perceived deterrence and cost savings: One guard can handle 40 convicts at once.
Spokane County Sheriff John Goldman said chain gangs pose liability and safety problems and breed resentment among inmates who ultimately will be freed upon society.
Goldman is a member of the Governor’s Advisory Committee on Jail Industries, which pushes inmates to produce products or services.
Businesses or organizations contract with counties for inmate services, and the revenues go to offset the costs of their prosecution and incarceration, and for victims’ restitution.
County inmates already operate the jail laundry and kitchen and sort trash at the city incinerator.
The sheriff wants them to also learn life survival skills, such as filling out job applications, using appropriate language on the job and being well-groomed.
“They’re going to be released at some time,” Goldman said.
Art Leonardo, president of the North American Association of Wardens and Superintendents, said chain gangs create confrontation between guards and inmates.
Leonardo, who runs the 1,600-inmate state Greene Correctional Facility in Coxsackie, N.Y., said his inmates fight forest fires, paint churches and pick up trash. But they don’t wear chains.
“Most of the superintendents in the United States think chain gangs are a return to the Dark Ages,” he said. “We’re not in the business of humiliating them.”
Harris and Hasson said that’s exactly what criminals need.
“Maybe we need to take a step back to the Dark Ages to get crime under control in this country,” Harris said.
Opponents of chain gangs note that county prisoners are either awaiting trial - and are presumed innocent or are serving short sentences. Instead of being embarrassed, they should be taught how to coexist with society, civil rights advocates say.
“Politically it sounds good,” Commissioner Marlton said, “but it offends my sensibilities. Everyone needs to be punished, but humiliated, I don’t know.”
Harris and Hasson will rely on the majority of voters, who will be asked this fall whether they support chain gangs.
Another advisory question will ask voters whether they support increasing the sales tax by one-tenth of one penny to pay for new jails and juvenile detention facilities.
Voters have rejected past levies.
“Everyone pays the sales tax,” Harris said. “People passing through town or criminals themselves buy things. We shouldn’t put the whole burden on property owners.”
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