By Brownstein, Rhonda
Corrections Today , Vol. 58, No. 2
Last year, with much fanfare, Alabama brought a sad and cruel part of American history back from the past - inmate chain gangs. More than 700 Alabama medium custody inmates now labor 10 hours a day busting rocks and picking up litter on the highways. The inmates, who receive no visitation during their entire six-month sentence, are handcuffed - arms above them - to a hitching post for the entire day if they "refuse to work" or disrupt others while working. The governor and prison commissioner claim that the chain gangs will deter crime and negative inmate behavior. They also claim that the program will save the state money. Actually, the reinstatement of chain gangs in Alabama was a shrewd political move, designed to appease the public's demand that the government get tough on crime.
Will chain gangs work to deter crime? We may never know the answer to that question. But recent statistics and studies point to the fact that longer and harsher prison sentences will do nothing to curb crime. According to the Uniform Crime Reports and National Crime Survey, the prison and jail population in the United States doubled from 1985 to 1995 due to the move toward mandatory and longer sentences, more people being sent to prison instead of being placed on probation, and more restrictive parole and other release policies. Yet, during this same period, the overall rate of serious crime remained stable. In Florida, the incarceration rate in 1980 was 183 per 100,000. By 1989, the rate had increased to 311 people incarcerated per 100,000. Yet, during this same period, the per capita reported crime remained the same. And, despite the fact that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, it also has one of the highest rates of violent crime. Incarcerating more inmates and lengthening prison stays has not served to deter crime.
On the other hand, recent studies suggest that education and jobs have some positive influence on both prison behavior and recidivism. A recent study by Anne Piehl, an assistant professor at Harvard, found that male inmates in the Wisconsin prison system who were enrolled in high school classes were 10 percent less likely to be rearrested four years after their release than those who did not participate in the program. Obviously, a 10 percent reduction in inmates nationwide would save a significant amount of tax dollars. …