Alabama is bringing back the chain gang, a sight most Americans haven’t seen since the Paul Newman movie “Cool Hand Luke.”
This spring, inmates will be put in leg irons and made to pick up litter along well-traveled roads.
Alabama will be the first state in the nation to reinstitute chain gangs, according to several national corrections organizations.
Prison work crews shuffling along in leg irons were a common sight in many states until public opinion was stirred by the 1932 movie “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang,” about an innocent man brutalized by a Southern chain gang.
“I find it fascinating the corrections system is turning back the hands of time when the rest of the world is moving forward,” said Rob Hoelter, director of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives and a critic of the plan.
No one at the state Corrections Department can recall exactly when Alabama did away with chain gangs or why.
Alabama’s new prison commissioner, Ron Jones, has placed a $17,000 order for 300 sets of leg irons so inmates can be put to work during the first 90 days of their sentences.
Jones is carrying out a directive from Republican Gov. Fob James that new inmates be denied TV and other privileges; that they be put to work; and that their first impression of prison be so unpleasant that they never come back.
The idea is to change the perception “that all inmates do is watch soap operas and drink Coca-Colas,” said Donald Claxton, the governor’s spokesman.
Alabama and many other states use minimum-security inmates, without shackles, to pick up litter. But half of Alabama’s nearly 20,000 prisoners are medium-security inmates who don’t qualify for work details outside prison. They stay inside, working in kitchens, mopping floors or making license plates.
“With leg shackles, we can put higher-risk inmates to work” on the outside, Jones said.
Jones envisions five prisoners working in a group, with 8 feet of chain between inmates.
“I think the image is horrible,” said
Joan Dolby, staff associate with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. But she said others may not feel that way because of the growing perception that criminals have it too easy.
Hoelter complained that the move is mere public relations.
“This has nothing to do with corrections and rehabilitation. It’s a statement for politicians,” said Hoelter, whose group advocates training for inmates to help them get jobs when they’re released.
Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely likes the idea because he’s a believer in the axiom “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.”
Lucia Fendland, director of the
Alabama Prison Project, said chain gangs will do nothing to help prisoners learn skills they can use on the outside.
“This doesn’t produce someone who is ready to come out in the work force, pay taxes and lead a productive life,” she said.
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