DRCNet Special Features

Chain Gang Blues

by Alex Lichtenstein

Dissent, Fall 1996, volume 43, number 4

In the midst of the Great Depression the American public was treated to a sudden outpouring of revelations about the horrors of the South's most notorious penal institution, the chain gang. Even today, many people know the Warner Brothers 1932 hit film I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang starring Paul Muni. This Hollywood rendition of Robert E. Burns s serialized true adventure story I Am a Fugitive from the Georgia Chain Gang! (1932), cast instant national disgrace upon Georgia's penal system and made Burns a popular hero, a white everyman struggling against bureaucratic indifference and state-sanctioned cruelty.

Burns's story attained mass cultural appeal, but the depression-era left produced its own expos‚s of southern "justice" that achieved wide circulation as well. These accounts focused more appropriately on the plight of African-American prisoners, who made up the vast majority of those sent to the chain gang for petty crimes. In 1932 radical investigative reporter John Spivak talked his way into Georgia's convict camps, and then published a thinly fictionalized proletarian novel about the chain gang entitled Georgia Nigger. Spivak's "novel" came replete with photographs documenting the shocking tortures he had observed, and the book was serialized by the Communist party in the Daily Worker. By the mid-thirties the International Labor Defense (ILD) pledged itself to defend anyone who escaped from a southern chain gang, white or black. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People made common cause with the ILD when it successfully defended an escaped African-American convict, Jesse Crawford, against extradition to Georgia.

It may only be a matter of time before we see a similar explosion of southern prison tales, though today s public may prove less sympathetic than that of the 1930s. Since 1980, America s prison population has more than tripled, passing the one million mark last year. Annual drug convictions have multiplied tenfold, constituting a hundred thousand new convictions each year. In a country with one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, with prisons in many states under court order to improve conditions, many people (the "public") still call for more prisons, longer sentences, harder time. In May 1995 the state of Alabama reintroduced chain gangs, and now works hundreds of prisoners in chains on its roads; Florida followed suit in December, fifty years after abolishing leg irons; in Louisiana last year, Republican Buddy Roemer made the promise of chain gangs a central feature of his gubernatorial campaign. As in the past, both blacks and whites do time on the chain gang, usually in proportion to their numbers in the overall state prison population (60 percent black in Alabama, 55 percent in Florida). Nevertheless, in states whose population is only one-fourth black the racial implications of the chain gang are inescapable. Both the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), usually associated with civil rights and anti-Klan work, filed suit against Alabama in federal court, claiming the chain gang violated the Eight Amendment sanction against "cruel and unusual punishment." As a result of the suit Alabama agreed to end the practice of chaining inmates together in coffles of five men. This, however, proved something of a Pyrrhic victory; prisoners still labor against their will in individual shackles.

Editorialists around the country have weighed in on the pros and cons of forcing convicts to work the roads in chains, and the television newsmagazines 48 Hours and 20/20 have run segments on this new "get-tough" policy. From what I see in the media, however, the historical antecedents of the chain gang are poorly understood. Commentators who find this punishment troubling almost always poin to its association with slavery. But no intelligent slaveholder would have allowed the state to punish his laborers by making them build roads for someone else. In fact, the chain gang was a distinctive invention of the "New South," not a holdover from slavery days. Ironically, early twentieth-century southern reformers initially offered chain gangs as a humane alternative to the then prevailing convict lease system.

To Degrade and Brutalize

During the first forty or fifty years following the Civil War, southern states leased prisoners for private exploitation to coal mines, turpentine farms, sawmills, phosphate pits, and brickyards. Two factors led to this system: the unwillingness to expend scarce resources on building new prisons and the white fears generated by the new rights and assertiveness of former slaves. Many petty crimes that whites would have overlooked during slavery now netted blacks lengthy sentences. Southern liberals who witnessed the convict lease system complained about the inevitable brutality of a system that encouraged the lessees of convicts to work prisoners to the utmost but provided little incentive for humane treatment. If a convict died, another one was always available from the "penitentiary" for the same low price. Critics of leasing also objected to the monetary benefits reaped by favored lessees at the expense of the rest of the public. The solution? Employ convicts to improve the South's dismal roadways. Convict labor should benefit all the people, these reformers claimed, and in their view prisoners would find a "kind master" in the state. Thus the chain gang on which Robert Burns and Jesse Crawford did hard time was born.

Observers who notice the racial composition of the new chain gangs are on the right track. When southern convicts left the coal mines and turpentine camps for the roads in the early part of this century, 90 percent of them were African-Americans. The visible nature of the chain gang rarely troubled its early advocates, who believed that African-Americans were "benefited by outdoor manual labor." Indeed, the advent of the chain gang coincided with the crystallization of segregation and the spread of black disfranchisement across the South. Like these other white efforts to extinguish once and for all the dreams of freedom and equality generated by emancipation, the chain gang stood as a powerful dramatization of the reassertion of white control over the lives of southern African-Americans. Black men working in chains, overseen by poor whites holding shotguns and authorized to shoot to kill, sent an undeniable message.

White southerners soon abandoned the initial humanitarian impulse that replaced the convict lease with the chain gang, and county road gangs scattered across the South became notorious among blacks and a few concerned whites for their substandard conditions and the vicious punishments meted out to prisoners unable to keep up the pace of work. States maintained little or no oversight of their chain gangs. In the 1930s, for example, three prison commissioners in Atlanta feebly monitored conditions in over 150 county chain gangs in Georgia. When civil rights activist Bayard Rustin spent a month on a North Carolina chain gang in 1947, he reported conditions that had changed little over the decades. Convicts labored, ate, and slept with chains riveted around their ankles. Prisoners worked under the gun from sunup to sundown, shoveling dirt at fourteen shovelfuls a minute, a killing pace. They ate bug-infested, rotten food and slept in unwashed bedding, often in wheeled cages nine feet wide by twenty feet long containing eighteen beds. Medical treatment and bathing facilities were unsanitary, if available at all.

Corporal punishment and outright torture casual blows from rifle butts or clubs, whipping with a leather strap, confinement in a "sweat-box" under the southern sun, and hanging from stocks or bars followed from the most insignificant transgressions. With the exception of a few "trusties," all the guards and certainly all the wardens in the South were white: thus African-Americans, who remained the majority of chaingang prisoners, were singled out for punishment. Rustin correctly concluded that the chain gang s ultimate purpose was to degrade and brutalize.

Ironically, in a society committed to segregation from cradle to grave, by the 1930s blacks and whites began to share a brutal solidarity in many of the South s convict camps. The end of leasing and the return of prisoners to public control gradually diminished the traditional southern reluctance to punish poor whites for crimes once prosecuted only if the defendant was black. The chain gang enjoyed a unique status as an interracial institution in the Jim Crow South. Thus one of the harshest institutions of American apartheid ended up falling on the poor of both races, as it does today.

Despite the revelations that came during the 1930s and 1940s, in many states this harsh penal system persisted until the 1960s, when the civil rights movement finally forced a change. Superficially, the chain gangs, bloodhounds, and sweat-boxes of benighted precivil rights Dixie now seem remote from the shopping malls, interstates, and suburban sprawl gracing today s New South. Why then would anyone want to bring them back? The disturbing truth is that the very features that brought the chain gang into disrepute have now become its selling points.

Down to this day southern states have combined extreme fiscal conservatism with high rates of incarceration, which has fallen disproportionately on African-Americans. In other words, white folks want to send black folks to prison but don't want to pay for it. (Of course this is no longer a purely southern phenomenon). After the end of slavery, prisoners were sold back into bondage. This was perfectly legal under the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery except for punishment for a crime. Not only did this save the states money, corrections departments actually became revenue generators! The chain gang ended the lucrative lease system, but also proved inexpensive to run and built badly needed new roads across the rural South. And now? Alabama s prisons are overflowing; the always-invoked "public" wants more people sent to prison for longer terms; the chain gang relieves overcrowding. A simple equation: "the big advantage to me is financial," claimed Alabama's prison commissioner, Ron Jones. (Jones was forced to resign when he finally ran afoul of southern "chivalry": he wanted to put women on the chain gang too.)

"That's How They Do It in Alabama"

As prison reformers all over the country point out, the best way to reduce skyrocketing prison expenditures is to send fewer people to prison. But politicians want to look tough on crime, and prisoners can't vote. Here is the source of the second powerful political incentive for the reinvention of the chain gang: the public at least the white public loves it. Prisoners "should be treated as criminals, as animals, social outcasts, pariahs," are the typical sentiments expressed by letters to the editor in Florida newspapers when the chain gang is discussed. Charles Crist, the ambitious Republican state senator who sponsored the bill authorizing chain gangs in Florida, told me that the "visible and obvious" harshness of the punishment would reduce crime. Unlike his counterparts in Alabama, Crist has little interest in the fiscal implications of the chain gang. He just wants some of the state s sixty thousand prisoners to receive harder punishment. Once, convicts graded and paved roads; now they mostly clear brush from the roadside. The actual work done by prisoners doesn t matter; symbolism is everything.

When Florida's legislature mandated the use of chain gangs starting in December 1995, the new law actually did spark some controversy: should the prisoners be chained together at work or not? Absolutely! proclaimed Crist. That's how they do it in Alabama five to a chain and that's what makes it possible to put dangerous felons on the roads, and that's what makes it a brutal and degrading chain gang. Senator Crist also fondly remembers his childhood drives across the Sunshine State, and the powerful moral effect (on him, presumably) o seeing chained men working the roads.

Harry Singletary, the director of Florida's Department of Corrections, disagrees. He believes that convicts should not be chained to one another while at work, and he calls Alabama s experiment with the system a "debacle," designed for media consumption. Indeed, Singletary, while obliged to carry out the law, thinks chain gangs simply provide the illusion that something is being done about crime, but have little "deterrent effect." Singletary, who is African-American and a native Floridian, has less pleasant memories of the old-time chain gang than does Senator Crist. When told that Crist approved of punishing recalcitrant convicts by chaining them to a hitching post in the hot sun, as they do in Alabama, Singletary retorted that "they are going to have to get another secretary [of corrections] if they are going to do that."

It is a measure of a distressing consensus that debate has turned on just how cruel this unusual punishment should be rather than whether it should be at all. Moreover, despite its advocates insistence that the chain gang punishes whites and blacks equally, in states with a large proportion of African-American prisoners, its racial message remains, well, "visible and obvious." Even though Florida decided to work prisoners in individual shackles rather than "on the chain," Singletary remains in the uncomfortable position of carrying out a policy which he and many other African-Americans cannot regard with equanimity. The chain gang stands out as one of the most deeply felt symbols and experiences of white oppression and abuse and as a rebuke to conceptions of fairness and justice in the courts.

For some whites, however, the chain gang has an equally powerful if opposite resonance. Just as die-hard segregationists won points with their constituency by outraging liberal opinion, the more condemnation heaped upon Ron Jones and Alabama s Governor Fob James by the SCLC, the SPLC, the ACLU, and bleeding hearts in New York who read the Village Voice the better, as far as its advocates are concerned. In Florida, Charlie "Chain Gang" Crist wears his nickname as a badge of honor. The image of black men working in chains reminds the crowd Crist and Co. play to of a world they think they have lost, a world where tough laws punished crime swiftly and severely, where prisoners paid their "debt to society" in the coin of hard labor, and where the members of the underclass, African-Americans in particular, knew their place. Despite the vociferous denials, this is what the chain gang is all about.

Alex Lichtenstein is the author of Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South.

Copyright 1996 by the Foundation for the Study of Independent Social Ideas, Inc. Readers may redistribute this article to other individuals for noncommercial use, provided that the text, all HTML codes, and this notice remain intact and unaltered in any way. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author.

Dissent, 521 Fifth Avenue, Suite 1700, New York, NY 10017.