Alabama's jail shackle shame

The Alabama prison system, which two years ago made headlines with the reintroduction of chain gangs, is now under attack for shackling inmates to horizontal metal bars known as "hitching posts".

Ruling on a lawsuit brought against the state by a prisoners' rights organisation, a federal magistrate judge this week assailed the system and said the apparently barbaric practice should no longer be permitted.

Typically located out-of-doors, the posts consist of a shoulder-high horizontal metal bar with eye-rings to which the wrists of inmates are attached by manacles. Witnesses testified that men would sometimes be left standing for hours in searing heat, unable to sit down or use the toilet.

"They had me chained, hitched up to the hitching rail like I was a dog," one inmate, Michale Askew testified. Another, Tony Fountain, told the court of a day he was attached to rail when he was taking laxatives. He soon soiled himself but was left on the rail for several more hours while other prisoners mocked him.

Prison officials contended that the posts provided a useful means to control inmates who violated prison rules.

But in a searing ruling, Judge Vanzetta Penn McPherson said: "Short of death by electrocution, the hitching post may be the most painful and tortuous punishment administered by the Alabama prison system. With deliberate indifference to the health, safety and indeed the lives of inmates, prison officials have knowingly subjected them to all of the hazards of the hitching posts, then observed as they suffered pain, humiliation and injuries as a result".

Brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the lawsuit also sought the suspension of the chain gangs.

The future of hitching posts will now go to a higher court for a ruling by a federal judge.

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