Chain gangs return as US jails get tough

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The Independent Online
California wants to end the privilege of conjugal prison visits for serious offenders. An Arizona jail is banning coffee and cigarettes for inmates. Alabama is bringing back the chain gang, last seen before the Second World War. And across America, federal and state prisons are starting to charge inmates for the dubious privilege of being confined behind bars.

These are but a few signs of how authorities in the US are responding to public outrage over crime - not just by imposing stiffer mandatory sentences for convicted offenders, but by making prison life so unpleasant that they will never want to sample it again. In a bid to make doubly sure, the House of Representatives has even passed a "Stop Turning Out Prisoners Act," that would limit a judge's power to order improved treatment of inmates. And while civil liberties groups are aghast, the general public seems enthusiastically in favour.

No change so graphically illustrates today's vengeful mood as much as the return of the chain gang, an institution which last entered most Americans' consciousness in the Paul Newman film Cool Hand Luke. But within a few months they will become a regular sight in Alabama. Following instructions from the Governor, Fob James, the state's prison authority has ordered 300 sets of leg-irons at a cost of $17,000 (£10,760). The gangs are expected to consist of five prisoners, joined to each other by an 8ft chain. The first of them will start work within a few weeks, cleaning sections of Interstate 65, a main tourist route to the beaches of Florida and the Gulf of Mexico.

"The idea is to change the perception that all inmates do is watch soap operas and drink Coca-Cola," says a spokesman for Mr James. Ron Jones, the state's prison commissioner, says: "Leg shackles will allow us to put higher-risk prisoners to useful work."

And if California has its way, conditions will soon be worsening inside the jails. The state is one of six to allow conjugal visits, a practice introduced in 1968 when Ronald Reagan was Governor, as a means of encouraging good behaviour. Now they tend to be seen as just another undeserved perk.

And even when a prisoner is released, nasty surprises are not over. Partly for economic reasons, partly in response to demands to "make criminals pay", many offenders are having to do that - literally. Michigan and Pennsylvania are just two states which present inmates with a bill for services rendered.

After his incarceration in a federal prison in Pennsylvania for drug use, Marion Barry, the now reinstated Mayor of Washington, had to pay $10,000, while a new Federal law entitles jails to charge a "Cost of Incarceration" of up to $21,000, depending on a convict's means. Daily rates can vary sharply, from the $10 a day levied by one Pennsylvania jail to the $60 maximum authorised last year by the Michigan state legislature - as the Wall Street Journal pointed out, "about the cost of a night at a Holiday Inn".