Return of The Chain Gang
Eyewitnesses say it was a scene straight out of a black and white movie from the 1950s. As the sun rose over the fields of Huntsville, Alabama, in the American South, the convicts got down from the trucks that had brought them there. Watched over by guards with guns, they raised their legs in unison and made their way to the edge of the highway, Interstate 65. The BBC's Washington correspondent Clare Bolderson was there and she sent this report:"They wore white uniforms with the words 'Chain Gang' on their backs and, in groups of five, were shackled together in leg irons joined by an eight-foot chain. The prisoners will work for up to 90 days on the gang: they'll clear ditches of weeds and mend fences along Alabama's main roads. While they are working on the gang, they'll also live in some of the harshest prison conditions in the United States.
There'll be no televisions or phone calls; many other day-to-day privileges will be denied."
The authorities in Alabama say there is a lot of support for the re-introduction of chain gangs in the State after a gap of 30 years (the last gangs were abolished in Georgia in the early 1960s). Many people believe it is an effective way to get criminals to pay back their debt to society.
The prisoners stay shackled when they use toilets. They reacted sharply to the treatment they are given:Prisoner one: "This is like a circus. A zoo. All chained here to a zoo. We're all animals now."
Prisoner two: "It's degrading. It's embarrassing."
Prisoner three: "In chains. It's slavery!"
Six out of every ten prisoners in chains are black, which is why the chain gangs call up images of slavery in centuries gone by, when black people were brought from Africa in leg irons and made to work in plantations owned by white men. Not surprisingly, although three quarters of the white population of Alabama supports chain gangs, only a small number of black people do. Don Claxton, spokesman for the State Government of Alabama, insists that the system is not racist:"This isn't something that's done for racial reasons, for political reasons. This is something that's going to help save the people of Alabama tax money because they don't have to pay as many officers to work on the highways. And it's going to help clean up our highways and it's going to help clean up the State."
However, the re-introduction of these measures has caused a great deal of strong disagreement. Human rights organizations say that putting prisoners in chains is not only inhumane but also ineffective.
Alvin Bronstein, member of the Civil Liberties Union, says that study after study has shown that you cannot prevent people from committing crimes by punishment or the threat of punishment: "What they will do is make prisoners more angry, more hostile, so that when they get out of prison, they will increase the level of their criminal behaviour."
Civil liberties groups say that chaining people together doesn't solve the causes of crime, such as poverty or disaffection within society. What it does is punish prisoners for the ills of society.
They say the practice takes the United States back to the Middle Ages, and that it is a shame to American society. But that's not an argument likely to win favour among many people in the Deep South of the United States. Alabama's experiment is to be widened to include more prisoners, and other States, such as Arkansas and Arizona, will very probably introduce their own chain gang schemes.