Chain Gangs

In the late 1860s, state legislatures authorized judges to sentence offenders to work on chain gangs. Traditionally, these gangs would spend ten to twelve hours a day breaking rocks with sledgehammers while they were bound together at the ankles with heavy chains and shackles. Members of the chain gang were allowed to change their clothes only once a week. They slept chained together and remained chained at all times even when defecating in a bucket—their only toilet.

Prison guards constantly threatened and physically abused chain gang members. Special forms of torture were also used to control the chain gangs. For example, the sweat-box treatment involved locking a prisoner into a wooden box that was too short to stand in but not deep enough to sit in. The prisoner would remain in the box for days while temperatures within the box exceeded 100 degrees.

Because the majority of chain gang members were African-American men, many citizens opposed the existence of chain gangs on the basis of racial discrimination. The brutal and inhumane treatment of chain gang members was also criticized. In addition, organized labor opposed chain gangs because they constituted a form of ‘‘slave’’ labor. As a result of this opposition, chain gangs were eventually eliminated from the United States’ landscape sometime around the 1930s.

In 1995, however, chain gangs reappeared in several states including Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Nevada, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. At least five of these states have enacted statutes that require inmates to spend a portion of their sentence working on chain gangs. In the other states, chain gangs participation is permitted but not required.

As a result of the new laws, several inmates have filed lawsuits challenging the use of chain gangs as cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. In Austin v. James, a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the state of Alabama agreed in a settlement to stop chaining inmates together.

The SPLC was also able to secure a finding by the Federal Court that the practice of handcuffing chain gang members to a metal rail (the ‘‘hitching post’’) in the Alabama heat for several hours without water or bathroom breaks was a violation of the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Other groups, such as Amnesty International, believe that chain gangs violate international laws such as Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 33 of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

JUDITH A. M. SCULLY

References and Further Reading

  • Oshinsky, David. Worse than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice. Free Press Paperbacks, 1996. 
  • Southern Poverty Law Center—Austin v. James (Case Number 95 CV 637, U.S.D.C. Alabama 1995) available at http://www.splcenter.org/legal/landmark/prison.jsp.

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