Chain gang

Chain gang
1894 illustration of chain gang performing manual labor
Chain gang street sweepers, Washington, D. C. 1909.

A chain gang is a group of prisoners chained together to perform menial or physically challenging work, such as mining or timber collecting, as a form of punishment. Such punishment might include building roads, digging ditches or chipping stone. This system existed primarily in the southern parts of the United States, and by 1955 had been phased out nationwide, with Georgia the last state to abandon the practice.[1] Chain gangs were reintroduced by a few states during the "get tough on crime" 1990s, with Alabama being the first state to revive them in 1995. The experiment ended after about one year in all states except Arizona,[2] where in Maricopa County inmates can still volunteer for a chain gang to earn credit toward a high school diploma or avoid disciplinary lockdowns for rule infractions.[3]


Synonyms and disambiguation

Female convicts in Dar es Salaam chained together by their necks, c. 1890–1927

A single ankle shackle with a short length of chain attached to a heavy ball is known as a ball and chain. It limited prisoner movement and impeded escape.

Two ankle shackles attached to each other by a short length of chain are known as a hobble or as leg irons. These could be chained to a much longer chain with several other prisoners, creating a work crew known as a chain gang. The walk required to avoid tripping while in leg irons is known as the convict shuffle.

A group of prisoners working outside prison walls under close supervision, but without chains, is a work gang. Their distinctive attire (stripe wear or orange vests or jumpsuits) serves the purpose of displaying their punishment to the public, as well as making them identifiable if they attempt to escape.

The use of chains could be hazardous. Some of the chains used in the Georgia system in the first half of the twentieth century weighed twenty pounds. Some prisoners suffered from shackle sores — ulcers where the iron ground against their skin. Gangrene and other infections were serious risks. Falls could imperil several individuals at once.

Modern prisoners are sometimes put into handcuffs or wrist manacles (similar to handcuffs, but with a longer length of chain) and leg irons, with both sets of manacles (wrist and ankle) being chained to a belly chain. This form of restraint is most often used on prisoners expected to be violent, or prisoners appearing in a setting where they may be near the public (a courthouse) or have an opportunity to flee (being transferred from a prison to a court). Although prisoners in these restraints are sometimes chained to one another during transport or other movement, this is not a chain gang — although reporters may refer to it as such — because the restraints make any kind of manual work impossible.


1842 illustration of chain gang going to work near Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Various claims as to the purpose of chain gangs have been offered. These include:

  • punishment
  • societal restitution for the cost of housing, feeding, and guarding the inmates. The money earned by work performed goes to offset prison expenses by providing a large workforce at no cost for government projects, and at minimal convict leasing cost for private businesses[citation needed]
  • a way of perpetuating African-American servitude after the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution ended slavery.[4]
  • reducing inmates' idleness
  • to serve as a deterrent to crime
  • to satisfy the needs of politicians to appear "tough on crime"

The use of chain gangs in the United States generally ended in 1955.[citation needed] Chain gangs experienced a resurgence when Alabama began to use them again in 1995.[4]


Parchman Farm chain gang, 1911

Many jurisdictions in the United States have re-introduced prison labor. In recent years, Maricopa County, Arizona, which includes Phoenix, Arizona, and its Sheriff Joe Arpaio, have drawn attention from human rights groups for the use of chain gangs for both men and women. Arizona's modern chain gangs, rather than chipping rocks or other non-productive tasks, often do work of economic benefit to a correctional department. Opponents note that the gangs often work outside in oppressive desert heat.

A year after reintroducing the chain gang in 1995, Alabama was forced to again abandon the practice pending a lawsuit from, among other organizations, the Southern Poverty Law Center. "They realized that chaining them together was inefficient; that it was unsafe", said attorney Richard Cohen of the organization. However, as late as 2000, Alabama Prison Commissioner Ron Jones has again proposed reintroducing the chain gang. The 1995 reintroduction has been called "commercial slavery" by some in academic circles.[5]

Tim Hudak, leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario in Canada, has campaigned on introducing penal labour in the province, referred to by many as chain gangs.[6]

In popular media

See also

Further reading

  • Burns, Robert E. I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang! University of Georgia Press; Brown Thrasher Ed edition (October 1997; original copyright, late 1920s). ISBN 0-8203-1943-0. Autobiography on which movie of the same name was based; best-seller responsible for exposing abuses of Southern chain gang system to national readership, leading to their termination.
  • Colvin, Mark. Penitentiaries, Reformatories, and Chain Gangs: Social Theory and the History of Punishment in Nineteenth-Century America. Palgrave Macmillan (2000). ISBN 0-312-22128-2.
  • Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Vintage Books (1979). ISBN 0-394-72767-3.
  • Lichtenstein, Alex. Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South. Verso (1995). ISBN 1-85984-086-8.
  • Mancini, Matthew J. One Dies, Get Another: Convict Leasing in the American South, 1866–1928. University of South Carolina Press (1996). ISBN 1-57003-083-9.
  • Oshinsky, David M. Worse than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice. (1997). ISBN 0-684-83095-7.
  • Curtin, Mary Ellen. Black Prisoners and Their World : Alabama, 1865–1900. University of Virginia Press (2000). ISBN 0-8139-1984-3


  1. ^ Roth, Mitchel P (2006). Prisons and prison systems. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 56–57. ISBN 0-313-32856-0. 
  2. ^ Banks, Cyndi (2005). Punishment in America: a reference handbook. ABC-CLIO. pp. 154–156. ISBN 1-85109-676-0. 
  3. ^ CNN (March 10, 2004). "Anderson Cooper 360 transcript". CNN. Retrieved 2009-06-07. 
  4. ^ a b Gorman, Tessa M. (March 1997). "Back on the Chain Gang: Why the Eighth Amendment and the History of Slavery Proscribe the Resurgence of Chain Gangs". California Law Review (California Law Review, Vol. 85, No. 2) 85 (2): 441–478. doi:10.2307/3481074. JSTOR 3481074. 
  5. ^ Meares, Tracey (February 1996). "Weak Link". The University of Chicago Magazine 88 (3). Retrieved 2007-09-26 
  6. ^ Toronto Star. July 18, 2011. Retrieved August 3, 2011. 

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Chain gang — Chain Chain (ch[=a]n), n. [F. cha[^i]ne, fr. L. catena. Cf. {Catenate}.] 1. A series of links or rings, usually of metal, connected, or fitted into one another, used for various purposes, as of support, of restraint, of ornament, of the exertion… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • chain gang — n: a group of convicts chained together esp. to work outside a prison Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of Law. Merriam Webster. 1996 …   Law dictionary

  • chain gang — chain gangs N COUNT In the United States, a chain gang is a group of prisoners who are chained together to do work outside their prison. Chain gangs existed especially in former times …   English dictionary

  • chain gang — n. a gang of prisoners chained together, as when working outdoors …   English World dictionary

  • chain gang — n a group of prisoners chained together to work outside their prison …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • chain gang — chain ,gang noun count a group of prisoners who are chained together while they work outside …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English

  • chain gang — chain′ gang n. a group of convicts chained together • Etymology: 1825–35 …   From formal English to slang

  • chain gang — ► NOUN ▪ a group of convicts chained together while working outside the prison …   English terms dictionary

  • chain gang — noun a gang of convicts chained together • Hypernyms: ↑gang, ↑crew, ↑work party * * * noun 1. : a gang of convicts chained together especially as an outside working party 2. slang : one of two or more railroad train crews ta …   Useful english dictionary

  • chain gang — UK / US noun [countable] Word forms chain gang : singular chain gang plural chain gangs a group of prisoners who are chained together while they work outside …   English dictionary