Despite criticism that it is turning back the clock to a time of less enlightened punishment, Alabama has moved ahead with plans to reinstitute the prison chain gang.
Starting Wednesday, shackled, high-risk inmates from a north Alabama prison were put to work picking up trash along interstate highways.
Chain gangs, the primary form of prison labor in the post-Civil War South, came under attack in the 1920s and 1930s because of inhumane conditions - including beatings, malnutrition and overwork.
“The convict on the road is the slave of the state,” wrote one prison reformer in 1912, when prisoners - nearly all of them black - were used primarily to build roads during an era of Southern economic expansion. Despite a series of exposes, chain gangs did not completely disappear until the 1960s.
Asked by lawmakers why Alabama was about to revive the long-abandoned practice, Prison Commissioner Ron Jones had a simple answer: “It’s cost-effective.”
With shackles and chains, as many as 40 convicts can be supervised by one guard with a shotgun. Normally one officer is needed for every 20 to 22 convicts, he said.
The state prison system has been trying a number of measures to cut costs. Jones has said he wants to avoid the need for new prisons, in part by making conditions so tough that inmates don’t want to return.
The revival of chain gangs has brought harsh criticism by civil rights and prison reform groups. There also have been suggestions that the sight of chained prisoners along the interstate would hurt tourism.