Bound together by misery and leg irons

Alabama, the first state to bring back chain gangs, faces law suits and the threat of riots. Daniel Jeffreys reports
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The Independent Online
Crickets wake up the sun in Capshaw, Alabama. All night their voices screech for sunrise. When dawn breaks the crickets grow calm, but the heat intensifies until noon, when the temperature hits 100 degrees. While the crickets still sing loud, almost 400 men are forced awake, soaked in sweat after a hot, restless sleep.

"They call us around 4am," says Marcell Harpin, an inmate at Alabama's Limestone Correctional Facility. "The rest of the prison is asleep, but we're the chain gang, so it's all part of the drill." Alabama brought back the chain gang in May, and this week the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) will challenge the state's decision in court.

Like many Limestone inmates, Harpin has never been in prison before. Alabama says it wants to focus on first offenders so that they learn their lesson fast.

Alone among Limestone's inmates, Harpin is British. He was born in London and came to the US 12 years ago. In 1993, he took cheques from his landlord and used them to steal $3,000. "We're kinda proud of Harpin," says the jail's deputy warden, Tom Davis. "It sends a message that Alabama is different. We don't care who you are, we won't take any of your nonsense."

Limestone's chain gangs are the inspiration of Ron Jones, Alabama's Commissioner of Corrections. In the US, prisons are "correction facilities". They expect inmates to change. If the chain gangs aren't enough, Jones is talking to the Alabama governor, Fob James, about some other innovations. "I'd like to have some real electric fence," he rasps. "Around 5,000 volts. That's what you'd call extremely lethal. I think we should think about caning as well. Some of our inmates come here with very fixed attitudes."

Jones has also been quick to exploit the rightward shift in the US Supreme Court. Last year, the top federal judges ruled that inmates could be kept in open dormitories. Jones immediately opened Dorm 16 for the chain-gang men. It is spartan, with more than 70 three-tier bunks. "There's no privacy," says Harpin. "You can never escape the noise or smell of other prisoners."

Commissioner Jones has no sympathy. "We have created a class of parasites for whom prison has become an entitlement programme." He pauses, to let this immutable truth sink in. "The chain gang is designed to erode the entitlement of prison."

In one sense, Alabama's move is desperate. Its prisons are so overcrowded that state courts limit how many new inmates each can take. Overcrowding means a "life sentence" is never more than seven years. Jones hopes that chain gangs will persuade the next generation of Alabama criminals to seek other occupations.

The sun and moon are both up as inmates head for the prison gates. It's a surreal moment. Someone should shout "cut" to confirm that we are watching a movie shoot, not real-life America in 1995.

Guards break the prisoners into six groups, but all eyes seem fixed on the inmates in the middle. A guard stands against the light with a loaded shotgun on his shoulder. He spits tobacco in a dark brown stream and adjusts his trousers under the lee of his fat belly.

Two of his colleagues lead a prisoner from the centre group. He is Freddy Gooden, serving a 26-year sentence for burglary. The warden is Sergeant Mark Pelzer. He is commanding the chain this week and yesterday Gooden refused to join the gang. As punishment, he spent the day chained to a hitching rail usually used for horses. The rail has no shade. By noon the temperature and humidity made the air feel far hotter than 100F.

Pelzer treats him with contempt. "Kneel down," he shouts. Gooden sags and kneels in the red clay. Pelzer has exchanged his shotgun for a truncheon. He looses another stream of tobacco juice and slaps the truncheon against his palm. "You know you're going to have to act right now or I'll put this stick on you." Gooden offers no resistance. The hitching rail seems to have knocked out his stuffing. Nearby, one of Pelzer's colleagues chambers a round in his shotgun and shouts a warning: "Y'all know this bullet ain't got no kinda name on it."

Since Alabama reintroduced chain gangs 48 Limestone inmates have spent the day on the hitching post. "Most don't last until midday," says Tom Davis. "We've had three last a whole day, but nobody has refused the chain gang two days in a row. I think it shows the system is working real well. We need the hitching rail to overcome resistance."

Like most staff, Davis does not see the chain gang as degrading torture. He sees it as a labour-saving device that gets more prisoners out in the open air. "With the gangs, we can put 40 inmates with one guard, three times what we could do without the chains. I think the inmates are now taking a liking to it. They accept the price as a way of spending more time in the fresh air."

What if a prisoner tries to escape? "The warden will shout a warning, then he'll fire a warning shot. After that he'll shoot to stop the prisoner."

Some inmates doubt they would get much of a warning. "The first day on the gang I thought I'd be shot," says Marcell Harpin. "The guy next to me had annoyed a prison officer. The warder suddenly swung around and put two shells in his shotgun and took aim. Then he dropped the gun and it went off. We were lucky not to get hit." In April, a Limestone inmate who tried to steal a guard's weapon was killed by shots from three different guns.

Outside Limestone's gates is a pile of large rocks. Some inmates will spend the day turning them into small stones. But first come the chains. The prisoners kneel in lines so that their ankles can be linked with 18 feet of chain. There are eight men in each gang. The air is filled with sharp commands and rattled steel.

Once hitched, the prisoners tie shoe strings around the chains so that the metal won't rub their ankles. "It's rough work," says William Crook, starting his second stint on the gang. "They say this is a learning experience. What are we supposed to learn?"

Commissioner Jones would say, not to sell drugs - the reason for Crook's eight-year sentence. Maybe Jones is right. "Before I come back on the chain gang I'd run, I'd get on the `Most Wanted' list. This is the hardest time I've ever done. Every morning I dread coming out here. The steel gets hot - it burns your ankles raw."

Harpin agrees. Limestone seems a long way from his native Golders Green. "The work is not so appalling. It's the humiliation out there in the hot sun knowing you're chained like an animal. The first gang I was on there were all these rednecks who would throw stuff at me and use lots of colourful language. The guards would just laugh."

Once a guard mislaid his keys and feared they had been taken by an inmate. "We were on Interstate 65," says Harpin. "They did a strip-search there on the highway. We were chained and naked with all these cars zipping by. I think that extreme reaction shows the guards are afraid. I think they're scared that the gangs increase the risk of a riot."

Inmates spend 10 hours in the scorching sun with a water break every half an hour. After Limestone made the chain gangs start rock breaking last month, the deputy warden, Ralph Hooks, was ecstatic. "Some will be too sore to get out of bed tomorrow," said Hooks. "But they'll come back out here and work their soreness out 10 hours a day, five days a week."

As the inmates are led back to their buses they look exhausted and a long way from rebellion; but others aren't so sure. State representative John Rogers, from Birmingham, Alabama, has forecast that the prison will have a riot before the year ends. Harpin reckons that inmates are hoarding home-made weapons and that their mood is growing sour. "The dormitory is only meant for 200 and we have 400 in there. The gangs don't go out at weekends. By Sunday afternoon, the atmosphere gets explosive."

If riots don't stop the chain gangs, the legal system might. Three Limestone inmates have filed suit against the State of Alabama. The ACLU is supporting their case, believing that the chain gangs violate the US constitution and international laws. "You're telling the prisoner he's an animal," says Alvin Bronstein, director of ACLU's National Prisons Project. "People lose touch with their humanity when you put them in chains."

There is also opposition from within the state. In 1957, the Alabama pastor Martin Luther King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with the Rev Joseph Lowery, who is still its president. Lowery is concerned about the potential racism of the gangs. Most inmates in Alabama are black. That is reflected in the composition of the chain gangs, despite efforts to ensure that each gang has at least two white inmates. "The chain gangs are a form of crucifixion," says Lowery. "I got no problem with the state working a man, but I think they should be left with some dignity."

Doubts about Alabama's experiment also come from more conservative quarters. "I don't think it's going to work." says Ed Meeks, executive director of the National Sheriffs Association. "Sitting in a cell is hard. But a chain is degrading. When they get out, these guys will hit the street angry."

Alabama expects to win legal challenges to its chain gangs. In 1989, Limestone segregated prisoners who were HIV positive. With the help of ACLU, 150 inmates took the state to court - and lost. Limestone still segregates prisoners who test positive for HIV.

Inside Limestone, the inmates are back in their dorm and the guards are sprawled in their office, a bare room with two metal desks. The prison beagles bark nearby. "I don't care what you hear in Washington," says Sgt Pelzer. "You'll see at least five other states with chain gangs by next year." He shoots a stream of tobacco juice that hits the spitoon dead centre. His prediction may be as accurate. Florida will have chain gangs by March, Mississippi by April.

The sun sets and the crickets restart their racket. Inside, Marcell Harpin has just finished working in the kitchens. He was excused from the chain gangs four days ago, after he was diagnosed with asthma. "The first day I was in here, they told me to unload this truck. It was full of fish marked `Unfit for Human Consumption'. I complained to a guard. He laughed and said. `You need to go back on the chain gang?' So what could I do? I unloaded the fish."