Women convicts join chain gang

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The Independent Online
Princess Richardson, short, blonde, 42, and a veteran of the Spartans biker gang, took two shots at her ex-husband with a Magnum .357. She marched out of the Arizona's Estrella jail yesterday at the head of what is proudly billed as America's first female chain gang.

The 15 women, their legs shackled, sang a marching chant that Princess, serving six months for aggravated assault, had written. "We got to work so we don't get fat/ We wear orange suits and little orange hats/ Big wide belts and shiny black boots/ People say that we look cute."

Mostly on short jail terms for prostitution and drug possession, few older than 25, they wore lipstick brought from the prison shop. They were paraded through a phalanx of television cameras, smiling and shy, bizarrely telegenic poster girls for the Phoenix Sheriff Joe Arpaio, famous as the toughest jailer in the US.

"I think it's pretty neat, actually," Shannon Evans, 23, jailed for crack possession, said through the window of the prison bus. "We've all been locked up for a long time. We are getting to go out to a real street where there's people."

Sheriff Arpaio is on the cutting edge of widespread efforts to force "hard time" on America's million-plus prison population. In the past four years he has erected a tent city to house 1,000 prisoners in Arizona's 110-degree summer heat, banned coffee and has dyed prisoners' underwear pink, to stop them stealing it from others.

His male chain gang was assigned to the cemetery yesterday, burying 15 bodies. As an "equal-opportunity incarcerator", he said, it was only fair that women should also serve. "Crime knows no gender, nor should punishment," he announced, standing by as the women began weeding down the side of Grand Avenue.

A couple of demonstrators from a prisoners' rights group, Middle Ground, yelled protests. through a megaphone as the women progressed slowly down the street, followed by a portable lavatory. But the women said they did not feel humiliated or degraded. It was hardly surprising. A month's service on the chain gang is the only way to move out of disciplinary cells, where four women share a cell for 23 hours a day, and never see sunlight.While three states now have male chain gangs, Alabama's corrections chief was fired this year when he suggested females ought to join them. Sheriff Arpaio is running for reelection himself in November. With 85- per-cent approval ratings and no opponent he hardly needs the extra publicity, although the Justice Department is investigating claims that his officers have used excessive force. "I like that word, 'tough'," he said. "I'm not a social worker here."