The Shackles of Inhumanity

The Chain Gang Rebukes Decency and the Constitution

As the debate over the death penalty reached its peak in Massachusetts this week, concern for an issue of almost equal significance in the category of "cruel and unusual punishment" has been sorely lacking. That issue is the resurgence of support for the chain gang and other similarly inhumane and archaic methods of punishment.

We can begin understand this issue by setting the stage for the debate. Legislative and law enforcement officials in many southern states have undertaken serious discussion of chain gangs for several months. Among the first to publicly endorse chain gangs was Gov. Fob Edwards of Alabama. The recently-elected governor appeared on national news broadcasts to outline his plan, already partly implemented, for reinstatement of chain gangs in the Alabama prison system.

One of these broadcasts featured comments both from the governor and from some of the prisoners who were already working in chain gangs on public works projects. the corpulent Edwards, his bare forehead beginning to sweat from the sun at his outdoor interview, told the network correspondent, "...if you gon' rape an' kill an' gon' end up on the chain gang!" Out on the road, the sweltering prisoners in their manacles and white uniforms complained far more eloquently; after decrying his chains and working conditions, one stated, "I am not a dog, I'm a man."

Forcing prisoners to do hard--the hardest--labor is not an action we generally associate with today's American penal system. Soviet prisons in Siberia and German labor camps during World War II come to mind much more quickly. In most American prisons, convicts can opt to work various jobs for small wages. It has been many years since Robert Eliot Burns uncovered the horrors of chain gangs in Georgia: long lines of men chained together, endless hours in the unbearable sun and whippings for workers who did not satisfy supervisors.

Abuse plagued the chain gangs that survived into the middle of this century. This abuse would not necessarily end with stricter regulations on chain gangs, because the root cause would still exist. The chain gang puts prisoners in adverse circumstances to begin with, and any abuse could bring disaster and death. When any individual has absolute power over the physical wellbeing of a whole group of individuals--and when those individuals are society's outlaws--that potential for that abuse grows immeasurably.

Today's advocates of the chain gang offer a much more sanitized scenario for its institution. But even without the squalid conditions and whippings, the spectre of back-breaking labor mandated by the state remains. It is the promise of that very labor that people such as Edwards use to press the chain gang's case; the new workforce can be turned to improving roads, public lands and other state infrastructure.

Couldn't that labor also be turned to manufacturing toys and garments that a scrupulous nation such as ours would refuse to buy from an exploitative nation such as, say, the People's Republic of China? The working conditions on the chain gang are hardly better than those in China's prison sweatshops, and the compensation of the laborers is hardly any better. We began by opening trade with China, but perhaps we should stop short of importing their techniques for punishment.

A question of image also pervades the debate over the chain gang. Why do southern politicians such as Edwards gabble so eagerly about the prospect of lines of predominantly Black prisoners chained together and working for virtually nothing? Chain gangs were arguably the last concrete remnant of slavery in this country, and they lasted for almost 100 years after the Empancipation. From a completely pragmatic point of view, their revival could hardly contribute to further racial understanding and respect.

The death penalty and chain gangs should be linked in public discussions, since they both involve punishment that threatens the human condition. But the question of chain gangs should generate more attention because of one important distinction. Victims of the death penalty cannot complain of their pain, but the cruelty of forced labor is shockingly evident--its victims live to testify to their ordeal.

Chain gangs further differ from the death penalty because they add a more humanitarian overtone to the right to live. Maintaining the ban on chain gangs would guarantee the right to live under decent conditions. Even if convicted criminals lose their rights to voting and social services, they are still protected from "cruel and unusual punishment."