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Florida Chain Gangs

In November, 1995, Florida became the third state, after Alabama and Arizona, to institute prison chain gangs. The prisoners work in 20-man crews, supervised by three gun toting guards. Prisoners are assigned to serve on the chain gang as punishment for disciplinary infractions.

The prisoners wear ankle chains, but are not shackled together. This infuriates Republican state Sen. Charlie "Chain Gang Charlie" Crist who wrote the legislation. Crist had wanted five prisoners chained to each other, the way Alabama does it. "We said chain gangs, and that means chained together."

But Crist was overruled by DOC Secretary Harry Singletary, who deemed that more work could be done if prisoners were not shackled together. "This is the whole reason to send people out to work every day," said a DOC spokesman. "You can get more work done if people are not chained together."

The executive director of the National Prison Project of the ACLU, Alvin Bronstein, said the ACLU would not file suit against the Florida chain gang law. He said the Alabama chain gang led to more injuries among prisoners - for example, when someone tripped and fell, dragging others down with them. Bronstein said the Arizona and Florida versions were more humane, but they were still a step backward to a long discredited practice.

"It has nothing to do with public safety," Mr. Bronstein said. "It has to do with treating people harshly, as if this would have an impact on crimes, which it won't."

Stan Czerniak, assistant secretary for operations at the Florida DOC, said he was unsure the chain gangs would be the deterrent "Chain Gang Charlie" Crist wants and questions whether they were worth the increased manpower necessary.

In prison, two guards oversee 144 prisoners. On the chain gangs three guards are required for 20 prisoners. By early December there were 140 prisoners working on what the DOC calls "restricted work crews" at seven prisons across Florida. DOC officials say that 200 prisoners will soon be working on the chain gangs, and the program may be expanded next year if the legislature approves additional funding.

Florida used chain gangs until 1946 when the practice was finally phased out, as in other states, after complaints about brutal and barbaric conditions.

Sources: AP, NY Times, Palm Beach Post, et al

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