It has to be said that this is not Ruby Wax's greatest fashion moment. In black-and-white striped pyjamas from hell, she and her fellow chain gangers shuffle down a street in Arizona with their ankles manacled. Can this dishevelled redhead, briefly silenced by the effort of keeping up with the chain gang, really be the same quick-witted smart-arse who foraged in Fergie's fridge?
In the first episode of the comedian's latest television project, Ruby's American Pie, Wax has chosen wholly new territory: the female chain gang. In the rest of the series she will explore other controversial aspects of America, a country she left for Britain more than 25 years ago. In characteristic style, Wax chivvies her way into Arizona's Maricopa County Jail which three years ago decided to endorse the first - and so far only - women's chain gang in America. When one of the women falls sick she immediately volunteers to join the chain.
The sight of ballsy Ruby stumbling in chains makes great television, of course. And she knows it. But at the same time there is a sense that for once the outspoken comedian is floored. In one scene, not shown, she accidentally trips and incurs the menacing anger of one of the Mexican prisoners. A jolly tour of Ivana Trump's walk-in wardrobe it ain't.
Wax was most surprised by the fact that, contrary to being horrified by the archaic practice of people being chained together, she could see some positive aspects to the scheme. Her preconceptions about the punishment were overturned by the reality. "A chain gang is appalling in itself, of course, but I found that it was a deterrent to the people I met," she says. "Many of them were drug addicts; as an addict, you are pretty selfish, but they learned to trust each other on the gang. The girls told me they actually liked it. Of course it's humiliating, but that's part of the sobering effect it has: after that, you'll never do whatever it is you are in for again."
The experience seems to have been cathartic all round, particularly when Wax got her fingernails dirty and joined the other women on funeral detail by digging a hole for a pauper's grave. Remembering the death of her baby, one sobbing prisoner freaked out on camera. "Digging a grave was a compassionate thing to do; it felt like a good day's work," says Wax. For once, she seems genuinely moved: "The whole thing was humbling. Compared to the chain gang, the rest of us are privileged, of course. The little things that the women did for each other, like combing each other's hair, were very touching.
"I expected most of them to hate the chain gang, especially the black women because of the connotations with slavery, but in fact they volunteer for it because they get better rations. They go outside the prison for six hours a day and they think it teaches them self-discipline and how to deal with each other. Sometimes people stamp on the chain and have fights with each other, but a lot of them regard it as some sort of salvation. I did get to talk to them without the guards hanging around, and they all said they got something out of the experience." Some of the women cry when they are released from the jail. The chain gang is less frightening than the outside world.
Other cliched assumptions about women's prisons are also overturned by the programme. At first glance, the baritone-voiced prison officer Kelly Sunday looks like one of the butch characters from an episode of Cell Block H. In fact she's a divorced grandmother whose boyfriend races Derby cars. Even the man who runs the jail, Sheriff Arpaio, has an original take on the whole scheme. "I'm the world's first equal-opportunity incarcerator," he says in the programme. "Women are treated in exactly the same way as men."
The female inmates are all petty offenders, some of them members of girl gangs outside who strongly relate to the idea of another gang inside. They give a scary display of female machismo when they bawl in unison "We are the chain gang, the mighty, mighty chain gang" while clanking down the street. Wax's facetiousness - "Boy, you've got a life like a mini-series," she tells one woman - can be read as a response to the sheer freakishness of the situation.
"The uproar in the States over the re-emergence of the chain gangs seems to have died down; in a strange way, it seems to have been accepted," says the programme's producer/director Helen Fitzwilliam. "They were very open to being filmed. I was surprised how easy it was to get access, but Arpaio claims he has nothing to hide. The prison officers were watching us all the time, but only because they wanted to protect us. People sue at the drop of a hat in the States, and they were worried someone might throw something at Ruby."
A legacy of slavery, the chain gang system used convicts in the Deep South as a substitute for slave labour after the Civil War. The practice became a national scandal after the publication of the book I Am A Fugitive From The Georgia Chain Gang by Robert Elliot Burns, who escaped from a chain gang and eventually achieved success as a magazine editor but, like Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, lived with the constant fear of recapture. Although the 1932 film adaptation left the name of Georgia out of its title, the movie was banned in that state and Georgia filed a libel suit against the studio. Chain gangs were finally abolished in 1962 but were brought back in the Nineties in several Southern states as a vote-winning law-and-order gimmick.
Now American showmanship has turned the chain gang into a bizarre source of pride for the prisoners. After 30 days of serving on a chain gang, volunteers are awarded a certificate. On the internet, these coveted documents can fetch up to $1,000 apiece. Some women, says Fitzwilliam, even plan to frame them for their children. "They said it was the only certificate they had ever been awarded. It's like a badge of courage - they are proud of toughing it out."
Wax was so fascinated by the story that she plans to return to America next year to see what has happened to the women. Do they return to crime? Or does the chain gang system work? "We are going back to film all of them, wherever they are, in a year's time. Maybe that means they will stay clean of drugs and crime in order to be filmed. I just hope it means the media may have helped in some way."
Ruby Wax? Wanting to help people? If she doesn't watch out, she'll be doing Esther's job next.
`Ruby's American Pie' begins on BBC1 at 10.05pm tonight.Reuse content