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Chain Gangs Challenged in Court

In the July, 1995, PLN, we reported that the state of Alabama had reintroduced chain gangs to its prison system on May 3, 1995. We did not give much attention to the issue because it has received enormous media coverage, most of it rather sensationalistic. What the mainstream media has down played is that the chain gang practice is being challenged in court.

On May 17, 1995, Morris Dees, renowned civil rights attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, filed the plaintiff's amended complaint in federal court. In the class action suit, Austin v. James, Case No. 95-T-637-N, the prisoner plaintiffs seek a court injunction barring the use of the chain gang as being barbaric, inhumane and exposing the prisoners to substantial risk of injury and death.

The 320 prisoners currently being forced to labor on the chain gang in Alabama were transferred to the Limestone Correctional Facility in Capshaw from other prisons in Alabama. Upon laboring on chain gangs for a given period of time they will be transferred back to their prison of origin. The idea for the chain gangs was first broached on, where else, a radio talk show by Fob James during his campaign for governor last November. Chain gangs were originally used in Alabama as a means of building roads for the automobile age. Chain gangs were abolished throughout the South by the early 1960's.

The complaint states that prisoners are chained together in groups of five and forced to labor for twelve hours a day along Alabama roadsides. Prisoners are given axes, shovels, blades and bush hacks to cut grass and pick up litter alongside roadways. Prisoners who refuse to work on the chain gang are handcuffed to a metal post, with their arms above their heads, and are forced to stand on an uneven surface all day in the hot sun.

The plaintiffs state that chaining prisoners together poses a substantial risk to their safety as they labor close to fast-moving vehicles. The complaint notes that the mere presence of chain gangs increases the likelihood of accidents as motorists stop to gawk and rubberneck at the prisoners. Noting that the defendants' intent is to attract the attention of passing motorists, it has succeeded, in diverting drivers' attention from the road. Shackled prisoners are unable to move to safety in the event of an accident. If an accident does occur, the chains can drag a whole group of prisoners into an accident. Since the chain gangs started, several near accidents have already occurred as drivers slow down to gawk and honk at the prisoners.

Use of chain gangs also exposes the prisoners to other serious risk of harm. Forcing prisoners to work chained together for twelve hours a day creates conflicts between the prisoners, most of whom have a history of violent crimes. The prisoners are already armed which allows conflicts to escalate into deadly violence. Chained prisoners are unable to flee if attacked. Likewise, the ratio of one guard to forty prisoners is insufficient to protect the prisoners. The complaint states that in just the first three weeks of operation there have been several confrontations amongst the prisoners. When fights break out guards aim their weapons at the entire chained group. Other problems caused by chained prisoners are the risk of being bitten by poisonous snakes. Prisoners must urinate and defecate while chained to each other as well.

The complaint seeks relief premised on the theory that the above cited conditions violate the plaintiffs' right to safety, causes wanton pain due to sunstroke and chafing by chains. "Defendants' use of chain gangs constitutes an inhumane condition of confinement and offends the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society. The system of chaining men together like animals is a barbaric punishment. It is repugnant to civilized standards and common decency and violates plaintiffs' dignity and humanity." Moreover, chain gangs lack any type of legitimate penological justification. As we go to press there have been no rulings in the case. We will report rulings in the case as they develop.

In response to the announcement by the state of Alabama that it was reintroducing chain gangs, Amnesty International, a human rights group, called on the US government to investigate the practice saying it may violate international treaties on prisoner and human rights. AI said that the use of leg irons is outlawed under United Nations rules for prisoner treatment. It also called on Alabama to halt the practice saying "This is the first time in recent history that the practice of shackling inmates together in chain gangs has been sanctioned by a U. S. state, and is clearly a retrograde step in human rights."

Litigation and human rights notwithstanding, politicians know a good sound bite when they see one. As states try to outdo each other in the ill treatment of their prisoners it follows that when someone comes up with a good one others will copy it. So it was when Alabama announced that it would reintroduce prison chain gangs. Media from around the world have descended on Alabama to catch the spectacle of prisoners shackled together working in the sun.

Arizona politicians were quick to jump on the bandwagon. On May 15, 1995, the Arizona DOC began putting prisoners in shackles along Interstate 191 at the prison near Douglas. Some 26 minimum and medium security prisoners were cutting weeds alongside the road. The prisoners were shackled individually. Inside the prison, some 20 prisoners from protective custody were put to work using sledgehammers to break up concrete for erosion and flood control projects. The prisoners were dressed in blue long-sleeved shirts with vertical orange stripes. A two foot piece of steel chain was padlocked to each prisoner's ankle.

Politicians in Florida have announced that chain gangs will be at work along Florida roadsides no later than December, 1995. Florida's "liberal" governor Lawton Chiles is supportive of the plan despite some tepid opposition voiced by DOC officials.

What no one seems to remember is that there is a reason chain gangs fell into disuse. One was that prisoners tended to scamper off when given the opportunity. Within the first month one prisoner escaped from Alabama's chain gang and two escaped in the first two weeks of Arizona's program by riding off in a DOC vehicle. As more prisoners escape, or are rescued by motorists, we'll see how popular the chain gangs remain with reactionary politicians.

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Related legal case

Austin v. James