Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Alabama Prison Chain Gangs: Reverting to Archaic Punishment to Reduce Crime and Discipline Offenders

Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Alabama Prison Chain Gangs: Reverting to Archaic Punishment to Reduce Crime and Discipline Offenders

Article excerpt


In the 1940s, chain gangs were outlawed as an appropriate correctional practice. Chain gangs became unpopular and started to decline because prisoners who were sentenced to them suffered disturbing abuses by those who operated prison systems, and from others who provided direct supervision over inmates assigned to work details. However, because of its increasing crime problem, Alabama has resurged chain gangs as a viable correctional policy (Donziger, 1996). Alabama prison officials argue that the purposes of chain gangs are fourfold: (1) To reduce the number of crimes committed; (2) to reduce repeat offenders; (3) to address disciplinary problems; and (4) to shame offenders into a life of conformity (The Mobile Press Register, 1996,4B).

Chain gangs are work details that permit prison inmates to leave a traditional prison setting for a specified period of time to be shackled with other inmates in leg irons to perform manual labor. The work details in which participants engage include: Removing trash from interstate roads; cleaning parks; painting shelters and benches; and repairing roads and fences (Donziger, 1996; The Mobile Press Register, 1996, 4B).

Chain gangs have ignited controversy in Alabama and have captured national attention. For example, though some residents of Alabama concede that chain gangs are punitive, they still favor using them as "a necessary evil." They contend that humiliation and hard work should deter criminals and potential law violators from engaging in crime. Yet, others oppose chain gangs and argue that this form of punishment conjures up memories of slavery and extreme brutality that blacks endured in the antebellum south. Moreover, the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADC) and other southern states have poor histories of affording fairness to black inmates. Therefore, implementing this type of punishment to an inmate population that is disproportionately African-American spotlights the brutality that has historically been given to blacks in southern states. Furthermore, the national audience has voiced its opposition to chain gangs by labeling them as discriminatory, repressive, brutal, unconstitutional, and shameful. However, despite the mixed feelings surrounding chain gangs lodged by Alabamians and national commentators, chain gangs are still used in Alabama and neighboring states. Despite criticisms, some officials of ADC contend that chain gangs will remain a part of the Alabama correctional arsenal (The Mobile Press Register, 1996, 4B).

This paper is divided into four parts. Part one addresses the historical use of chain gangs. Part two describes Alabama chain gangs. Part three discusses the unsafe aspects of chain gangs and the legal liabilities that could ensue from their use. Part four focuses on whether Alabama chain gangs are aimed at rehabilitating or punishing offenders. In the final analysis, we contend that chain gangs are a form of cruel and unusual punishment designed to dehumanize offenders.

Part I: The Historical Use of Chain Gangs In The United States

In 1878, as an attempt to reform the penal system, William Penn created the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons to reduce the high levels of corporal and capital punishment to which prisoners were subjected (McKelvey, 1972; Sellin,, 1967; Duffee, 1989). With this new penal code, insufferable conditions such as floggings, mutilations, and executions of inmates were replaced by imprisonment with hard labor (McKelvey, 1972; Sellin, 1967). One immediate result of this reformative effort was that inmates were quickly placed on chain gangs to work on city streets. The inmates assigned to work details were made to wear highly visible uniforms and engage in hard labor while chained to other inmates.

Historical commentators note that during the 18th century to the mid 19th century, it was commonly assumed that subjecting inmates to hard work was necessary to assist them in atoning for their misdeeds (Duffee, 1989). …

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