Alabama’s reintroduction of chain gangs has provoked the predictable cries of outrage. Howell Raines (formerly of Alabama and now of the New York Times) described Governor Fob James as “Alabama’s current genius of bumpkin publicity.” The politest expressions used to describe Governor James’ decision usually include words like “barbaric,” “reactionary,” and “racist.” Reactionary they may be, if “reaction” means a restoration of sanity, but chain gangs are neither barbaric as a means of punishment nor racist in motivation.
Howell Raines might not approve, but the people of Alabama do not seem to care what he or anyone in the media have to say about them or their governor. There was a time in the United States when an outsider’s opinion carried little weight with the people of a sovereign state, and it made little difference that the outsider was a federal judge or even a President. The punishment of crimes—unless they were, like treason, strictly federal—was left up to the states, and if some state were foolish enough to eliminate capital punishment or execute thieves, it was nobody’s business but the people of the state. Governor James is one of the only governors in recent years to uphold the rights and dignities of his office, and not long ago he threatened to call out the Alabama National Guard if federal authorities attempted to arrest a judge for beginning court with the Lord’s Prayer. The chain gang issue may up the ante for Alabama: some civil rights groups arc threatening to sue the state for violating international human rights guaranteed by United Nations conventions.
The main influence on Governor James’ decision was money: the cost of incarcerating and “reeducating” prisoners has been rising steadily all over the United States, and by the beginning of 1995 the Alabama Department of Corrections had a $12 million deficit. In Alabama, prison conditions were so soft that convicts were actually turning down parole. One solution, employed by the sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, has been to house prisoners in tents and deny them all luxuries. Sheriff Arpaio has also put convicts to work on chain gangs, gleaning fields and cleaning up roadways.
In Alabama, the Corrections Commissioner, Dr. Ronald E. Jones, concluded that expensive rehabilitation programs simply did not work. Despite the alarming increases of expenditures on education and therapy, the recidivism rate remained unchanged. After spending billions of dollars on punishment, the people of Alabama were no better off. On the contrary, the number of four-and-five time offenders is on the rise. Chain gangs are a fair method of punishment, because they lower the cost per prisoner and allow the people to spend more of their money on their own needs, as opposed to the penological theories proposed by supposed experts whose credentials consist of college courses taken from other supposed experts.
It is also fair to convicts. In Alabama the chain gangs have been reserved for recidivists. Critics say, “doing time” is sufficient punishment. Perhaps it is, for the first-time drug-dealer or shoplifter. But how to distinguish the punishment of such first-timers from what is meted out to hardened repeat offenders who regard armed robbery and rape as a way of life? Besides, a healthy man might prefer to spend 12 hours a day out in the fresh air instead of in a cell, and some Alabama prisoners are apparently demanding to be put on the gangs.
It is only fair that in some sense the punishment fit the crime, and working 12 hours a day on a road gang is a juster punishment than mere incarceration. It also forces the prisoner to make some recompense to the society he has injured by his crimes, and he is aware, with every breath he takes, every rock he breaks, that he is paying for his crimes.
The race issue has been raised, inevitably. A disproportionate number of black males are, in fact, locked up in state prisons, and the imbalance is particularly noticeable in states like Alabama, where there is a large black population. Let us face the facts of the situation. The reality is that blacks, while they constitute only 11 or 12 percent of the national population, commit over 50 percent of the violent crimes. Of course they are more likely to be found on chain gangs, because they are more likely to be caught for murdering, assaulting, robbing, and raping their fellow citizens. If they do not wish to work at hard labor, they only have to give up their life of crime. By the time a man commits murder or rape, there is no point to a discussion of poverty, social conditions, or prejudice. Plenty of poor black men do not commit crimes, and plenty of affluent white men do. We can only punish individuals, not society.
One particularly “barbaric” aspect of the chain gang is the shame and embarrassment suffered by the convict. He imagines that the cars passing him by on the highway are filled with his friends and neighbors, all laughing at his misfortunes. A sense of shame is precisely what so many criminals lack. In some cases nobody at home or in school ever bothered to tell them right from wrong; in others, degraded community norms triumphed over the best efforts. As one retired car thief has written: “In spite of all my Sunday learning, to the bad I kept on turning. . . . No one could steer me right but Mama tried.”
Whatever the cause of a man going bad, public exposure to ridicule, whether it takes the form of the stocks or a chain gang, may be the best step toward rehabilitation a prisoner will ever take. It is also a powerful warning to young men who are contemplating criminal acts. Chain gangs are a concrete and forceful expression of social disapproval, a public confession from the convicts that “I fought the law and the law won.”