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Let's cut chain gangs loose.

IMAGINE THE FOLLOWING SCENE: IT'S A HOT summer day. The sun is beating down on African American men. They are shackled to each other as they chop weeds for 12 hours. Armed guards and panting dogs watch intently over the chained men.

One may think that this imaginary scene is rendered in the sepia tones of history. It is not. Chain gangs, unfortunately, have become an increasingly common part of the American landscape.

Chain gangs are a reality in at least seven states, and they are imminent in several more. Moreover, chain gangs are not confined to Alabama, the self-proclaimed heart of Dixie, and other former states of the Confederacy. Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, and Maryland--Union states all--have decided to welcome displays of shackled prisoners along state highways.

Let there be no mistake about it, there is an unambiguous historical connection between chain gangs and slavery. Advocates of the modern chain gang in Southern states trade on this historical connection. Anyone who disagrees need only consider the comment of one Alabama roadside chain gang spectator: "I love seeing 'em in chains. They ought to make them pick cotton."

At the beginning of this century chain gangs were used as a mechanism to keep African Americans in voluntary servitude even after Emancipation. Southern judges commonly sentenced African Americans convicted of vagrancy (also known as unemployment) or loitering to time on the chain gang, where iron shackles were welded to an offender's ankles, and dogs, whips, and starvation were used liberally. By Tracey L. Meares, assistant professor at the University of Chicago Law School.

Nor was a chain gang sentence limited to those convicted of petty crimes. In many cases mere breach of a contractual obligation was enough for a chain gang sentence. Contract-enforcement laws directed primarily at African American farm laborers transformed labor contracts into slavery. These laws made it a criminal offense for a farm laborer to quit a yearlong job for a better job at a higher wage. African American laborers were forced to choose between working out the original low-wage contract or spending several months of forced, brutal labor on a chain gang where fatality was not uncommon.

Though contract-enforcement laws are now unconstitutional relics of the past, the racial disparities in state prison populations have not changed. African Americans comprise about half--in Alabama, Georgia, and Maryland well over half--of the incarcerated prisoners in almost every state that has sanctioned the modern chain gang. (Iowa, with an A African American prison population of 25 percent, is a notable exception.) These numbers mean that slavery's image is an inescapable aspect of the return of chain gangs.

The obvious costs of resurrecting a punishment so intimately connected with American slavery clearly outweigh any benefit American citizens can expect to gain. Aside from the very clear problems associated with the historical symbolism of the chain gang, there is a more basic problem. No one can convincingly argue that chain gangs will effectively reduce crime.

Chain gang proponents often express a desire to make prison so awful that a prisoner would not ever consider coming back. One must wonder how many legislators have been inside a state correctional facility. Prison already is not a pleasant place, as anyone who actually has been inside one can attest.

Chain gang proponents also argue that the public humiliation of service on a chain gang will lower recidivism and may even deter law-abiding folks from considering a life of crime. This argument assumes that little-to-no humiliation is associated with going to prison--clearly a ridiculous idea. It is extremely unlikely that humiliating service on a chain gang will advance the deterrent value that we already obtain through imprisonment.

Adding chain gangs to imprisonment is not a cheap way to purchase an additional measure of deterrence. Obviously chain gang service does not make imprisonment any less expensive. Legislators who advocate chain gangs as a shaming penalty need to think again. If shaming penalties are useful at all, they are useful for their potential to serve as alternatives to incarceration. But chain gang advocates usually propose to apply chain gang service to those already incarcerated. No one discusses using chain gangs to make probation or community service more harsh. The legislators who propose chain gangs as shaming penalties are simply throwing more money at an already expensive program.

Chain gang service makes imprisonment more expensive while reducing the public's safety. We do not send offenders to prison simply to deter them from committing offenses when they are released. We send offenders to prison to incapacitate them and protect the public. Removing prisoners from the confines of prison walls and requiring them to work along roadsides increases the chances of escape, as Alabama learned in January 1996 when two prisoners escaped from a chain gang. The risk to the public from chain gangs could be reduced by making sure that only very "safe" prisoners (embezzlers?) are allowed to work outside the prison; however, most chain gang proponents would resist this approach. Proponents call for more harsh treatment of violent and repeat offenders as a measure to reduce crime and protect the public, but they simply cannot have it both ways. They can either decide to keep so-called "incorrigible prisoners" behind prison walls, or proponents can attempt to make punishment more harsh for these offenders by requiring them to work outside in chain gangs. The most sensible option is obvious.

WHY IS THERE SUCH A RUSH BY LAWMAKERS to drag these anachronistic punishments to the 21st century when numerous studies indicate that high school education and vocational training of prisoners is directly correlated with lower recidivism rates? It makes little sense to invest in an untested, morally ambiguous plan when that money would be much better spent on programs that can prepare a prisoner for the life he or she will lead outside. A life that will require a released offender to have basic reading and writing and maybe even computer skills. A life that is extremely unlikely to require an offender to know how to break rocks or chop weeds by the side of the road.

Perhaps lawmakers might support a policy that combines sound research and political appeal. How about this idea: Let's chain all inmates to desks and force them to learn to read and write. How about a bill to require that all inmates receive a General Equivalency Diploma? Granted we wouldn't be able to gawk at inmates learning in a classroom--like we can when driving by prisoners shackled together on the highway.

True, we wouldn't be able to laugh at prisoners flexing their minds at their desks as we do now when humiliated criminals build up their muscles swinging picks at the taxpayers' expense. ("See, son, that illiterate prisoner sure is gettin' what he deserves, havin' to learn to read and all" probably isn't what chain gang proponents have in mind.) Of course, we wouldn't be able to have second and third chances at humiliating these recidivists because educated prisoners might actually become contributing citizens rather than repeat performers. But such an approach might actually reduce crime, which is what the push for chain gangs is supposed to be about.

Lowering recidivism rates, deterring crime, and allowing human beings to retain some semblance of dignity are the true goals of imprisonment. Humiliation of prisoners that depends on our country's sad history of enslavement of human beings is not. The argument against chain gangs is about more than preserving the humanity of prisoners. It's about preserving the humanity of the citizens of the United States. Every single one of us is degraded by the trend to bring back this ignominious punishment.

As Christians, we have an obligation to take a stand against morally outrageous punishments such as the chain gang. The gospels teach us to lead others by example, not to follow them blindly. It is time for us to move forward into the 21st century. It is time to repudiate chain gangs once and for all.


Each month, advance copies of Sounding Board are mailed to a representative sample of U.S. Catholic subscribers. Their answers to questions about Sounding Board and a balanced selection of their comments about the article as a whole appear in Feedback.

States should/should not revive chain gangs because:

Chain gangs are a humiliation of the person created in God's image--even if that image is heavily laden under sin.

Jeanne Kochan

Prescott Valley, Ariz.

Only a small percent of prisoners are first-time offenders. The remaining prisoners are repeat offenders who are used to prison. Chain gangs will give prisoners a true sense that they've done something wrong.

Amy L. Harris

Miami, Fla.

Chain gangs reflect a darker part of American history, and it simply doesn't work. How can we treat prisoners like animals and expect them to reenter society as model citizens?

Rick Goetz

Louisville, Ky.

Chain gangs deprive prisoners of their dignity and subject them to cruel and unusual punishment.

Dick Barrett

St. Paul, Minn.

A lot of public work can be done by chain gangs. There is not enough work available in prisons, and there is plenty available outside, such as cleaning roadsides and digging ditches; security reasons require chains.

Name withheld

Kansas City, Kan.

Humiliation and lack of self-worth are probable cause for imprisonment in the first place. Chain gangs only result in further degradation that will only return a more angry person to society.

R. Schumacher

Janesville, Wis.

Chain gangs are harsh punishment. However, if prison life is not miserable, criminals will return to prison soon after they are released.

Vicky Costello

Columbus, Ohio

Too much concern is given to the rights of the prisoners. Chain gangs are for the humiliated victims, those who were a target of a robbery or rape or even murder.

Name withheld

Rockford, Ill.

People do not cease being human because their sins are more public than those of most of ours; no one should be subjected to such inhumane treatment.

Rita Haugh

Winona, Minn.

Thinking about humans chained together, I find it difficult not to connect it with slaves being sent to the market for sale. Human beings are not brute animals, but People of God, no matter what they've done against society.

Father George A. Whedbee, C.M.F.

Los Angeles, Calif.

The best way to rehabilitate prisoners is:

To offer young offenders the choice of spending time in a boot camp rather than prison. Boot camp programs turn offenders around by strict discipline and build self-esteem.

Gwen Mellenthien

Horicon, Wis.

You cannot rehabilitate someone who has been neglected and abused from birth and then ends up in prison. You can only hope to control a prisoner's future actions.

Nancy Novak

Fort Worth, Tex.

We need to provide prisoners with opportunities for both mental and physical development. There is dignity in labor, as well as a chance to develop discipline, but that--not humiliation--should be the point of physical work.

Sister Jean Marie Dunn

Parkston, S.D.

Since most prisoners are in jail for drug offenses, much more drug treatment is needed.

George Ellington

Omaha, Nebr.

The ideal would be to raise the self-worth and self-esteem of each person convicted of a crime. That would encourage persons to make an honest living and love others as they love themselves.

Sue Crowder

Truth or Consequences, N.M.

Education is the key to changing lives. We need to break the cycle of low self-esteem, failure, and violence. Funds spent on programs in elementary schools for children who have emotional or social problems is money well spent.

Name withheld

Toms River, N.J.

Tracey L. Meares has a great idea about requiring prisoners to get a G.E.D. Also, rectifying the factors that lead to criminal behavior seems to be effective in the long run.

Jennifer Ludtke

Deerfield, Wis.

To provide skill training that will in turn allow prisoners to find jobs that provide living wages.

Jane Hall

Statesboro, Ga.

Many prisoners do not need rehabilitation, but basic habilitation--personal, moral, ethical skills--which they never got in the first place.

Name withheld

Fresno, Calif.


Those of us who work within the demeaning and dehumanizing environment of a prison know that human degradation will never be a deterrent to crime. If being subjected to extortion, rape, and the constant fear of a violent death has not proven a sufficient deterrent, it is ludicrous to think that chain gangs will be the magic cure.

Harold L. HotchLiss

Dannemora, N.Y.

Crime victims and their families have every right to be angry, but vengeance--including the use of chain gangs--will not bring about a sense of healing to anyone.

Darcy Wharton

Rocklin, Calif.

As a teacher, I disagree with forcing anyone to learn. No one should associate education with punishment.

Joanne Demasi

Akron, Ohio

Opportunities for education already exist within the prison system; but because learning isn't required, prisoners spend their time enjoying themselves. Therefore, legislation is needed that would require prisoners to actually learn something.

Name withheld

Grapevine, Tex.

This country has spent the past 25 years or more trying to rehab prisoners with results not worth the countless dollars spent. Habitual offenders neither respond nor deserve further coddling from society.

Ralph Armenta

Closter, NJ.

Chain gangs are no more cruel and inhumane punishment than the cruel and inhumane way the criminal treated his or her crime victim.

Name withheld

Little Falls, Minn.

I remember my first sight of a chain gang in the 1960s South. It was a very unpleasant scene from a past that I wanted to believe was impossible to duplicate in a modern setting.

Veronica Wingen

Fort Worth, Tex.

Our judicial system needs to clearly distinguish between punishment and rehabilitation. Both need to take place in separate places, and rehabilitation can only begin in earnest when a prisoner's debt to society has been paid by the appropriate punishment.

Father George Schmitz

Kettering, Ohio

I fail to see the connection between chain gangs and slavery. With that logic Catholics need to quit displaying the crucifix because the Ku Klux Klan uses it as a symbol as well.

Name withheld

Montgomery, Ala.

I'm currently serving a 12-year sentence in the penal system and have seen the damage of chain gangs firsthand. Men are treated like animals, and when they're released, they've been abused so much that they don't know how to conduct themselves in society.

Thomas Mackoa

Cross City, Fla.

(All comments used in Feedback must be signed, but we withhold names on request. We regret that space limitations force us to condense letters and that many cannot be used at all. We try to reflect major opinion trends accurately. Our thanks to all who wrote.--The Editors)


A number of Feedback responses came from inmates at Northampton County Prison--a coed facility located in Easton, Pennsylvania.

Of those respondents, 67 percent said chain gangs represent cruel and unusual punishment. Fifty-three percent indicated that chain gangs only create a more dangrous prison environment. A slightly higher majority, 67 percent, said more harsh prison conditions wouldn't deter potential criminals, while 87 percent thought inmates should be required to get their G.E.D. Eighty percent said chain gangs have no place in the United States.

States should try harder to show criminals they can be good at something other than stealing or selling drugs. Too many people turn to crime because they know nothing else.

Samuel Domenech

Chain gangs do not affect the mind of the criminal. It's also a very unsafe and mean punishment.

Rosaly Patterson

The way to rehabilitate prisoners is to show them what it's like to be financially and emotionally stable. People who are stable don't want to let that stability go. On the other hand, those who have nothing don't really care if they go to jail.

Martin Stofanak

People shold not be chained up like animals. How would it feel if you were chained up for the public to pick at?

Jabrica Willis

Prisoners need to be shown what it's like to be educated.

Sonna Moreno

Prisoners need to learn why their behavior was wrong; and if they left school early, they need to get their G.E.D.

Seneca Rogers

Chain gangs should be revived because people who want to hurt others need to be hurt themselves.

Marcelo DeJesus
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:includes comments by readers and prisoners
Author:Meares, Tracey L.
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Column
Date:Jul 1, 1997
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