Chain Gangs

A chain gang refers to a group of prisoners shackled at the waist and chained to one another that performs hard labor in full view of the public. Chain gangs were used during the 19th century as a form of punishment in parts of the world including England, France, Australia, and the United States. Chain gangs were first introduced in the United States during the Reconstruction period, which followed the end of the Civil War in 1864. Chain gangs were primarily used in southern states including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia, where many prisons were overcrowded or had been destroyed during the Civil War. Chain gangs both cost less than standard imprisonment and provided cheap labor for a region decimated by the Civil War and whose free-labor pool evaporated when slaves were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This entry reviews the early history and purpose of chain gangs, details opposition to this form of punishment, describes a modern version of chain gangs, and highlights pertinent legal rulings.

Chain gang labor conditions were notoriously brutal. Chain gangs performed hard labor for 10 to 12 hours per day on projects including building and repairing roads, installing railroad ties, and breaking rocks into gravel. The prisoners remained shackled to one another while laboring, eating, sleeping, and even defecating. Prisoners labored under constant threats from guards and were punished with beatings from a rifle butt, club, or leather strap; with solitary confinement in a “sweat box” (an outdoor wooden box that was not high enough to stand in but not deep enough to sit); by stretching limbs on a Georgia rack; by being chained to two stakes while covered in molasses to attract insects and other creatures; or by the denial of meals. The brutal nature of chain gang conditions often amounted to a death sentence for the prisoners. Chain gangs had higher rates of prisoner deaths than standard imprisonment, with inmates frequently dying from exposure to the elements, exhaustion, dehydration, malnutrition, or being killed by guards or fellow prisoners.

Chain gangs served a number of social functions related to crime and punishment. Chain gangs served to publicly humiliate and degrade lawbreakers, which supporters argued deterred future lawbreaking. Chain gangs also satisfied the public’s desire to see just punishment meted out to criminals. In his seminal work Discipline and Punish, critical scholar Michel Foucault observed that chain gangs were a popular public spectacle of punishment in the tradition of public executions, designed to combine punishment and ceremonial torture for the viewing pleasure of the spectators.

As the United States entered the 20th century, chain gangs were increasingly criticized for economic reasons. By the time of the Great Depression, organized labor and the unemployed decried the use of unpaid chain gangs to labor in public works projects, demanding that they be given these jobs. By the 1950s, shifts in penal reform and several notorious prison riots prompted new public scrutiny about whether chain gangs amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and involuntary servitude, in violation of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. By the 1960s, chain gangs had fallen out of favor in most U.S. states.

But chain gangs were not gone for good in the United States. In the mid-1990s, chain gangs were reintroduced in a number of states, including Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. Modern chain gangs were swept in on a tide of other tough-on-crime criminal justice policies that became popular with politicians and the public in the 1990s, including mandatory minimum sentences and “three strikes” laws. This trend of popular support for harsh criminal justice measures, known as punitive populism, saw the use of chain gangs spread to a number of states by the late 1990s. As with the Reconstruction-era version, modern chain gangs served the same social function of humiliating and shaming prisoners in public and satisfying a popular desire for vengeance against criminals.

Modern chain gangs varied somewhat from those of the Reconstruction era. Although modern chain gang prisoners were shackled and chained together, they returned to the prison at day’s end to eat, sleep, and shower unshackled. Many states also limited the sentencing of criminals to modern chain gangs to violent felony convictions rather than misdemeanor and nonviolent crimes like vagrancy. Alabama, however, was one state in which prisoners were sentenced to modern chain gangs for probation or parole violations or for violating prison rules while incarcerated. Modern chain gangs also performed a broader range of hard labor, including repairing highways, clearing trash, pulling weeds, painting buildings, and breaking rocks into gravel. Modern chain gangs were more racially diverse than their Reconstruction-era predecessors, and some even included women.

Modern chain gangs were challenged by a number of lawsuits alleging that the harsh conditions violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, as well as international law. While the U.S. Supreme Court has addressed aspects of chain gangs, including that punishing a chain gang inmate by attaching him or her to a hitching post violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment ( Hope v. Pelzer, 2002 ), the Court has not directly ruled on whether chain gangs amount to a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. In the present day, chain gangs remain active in several states, albeit with greater constraints than their predecessors.

Tara Lai Quinlan

See also Crime ; Prisons and Jails ; Punishment ; Slave Trade

Further Readings

Austin v. James, 95-CV-637 (M.D. Ala.1995).

Burns, Robert Elliot. I Am a Fugitive From a Georgia Chain Gang! Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (trans. Alan Sheridan). New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1995.

Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730 (2002).