Chain Gangs: Florida Sheriff Wayne Ivey Bringing Them Back to Prisons

Is prison punitive, or should it be for rehabilitation? That is the question that springs to mind with the re-institution of the chain gang, by Florida’s Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey. Ivey’s tough crime stance sees the visible and alarming sight of a chain gang as a deterrent, keeping would-be criminals from pursuing offences which might land them in leg irons and striped jump suits.

Obviously, the connotation of slavery is never far from sight, as the origin of the chain gang — usually a group of men shackled together at the ankle, doing hard labor in the sun — lays directly in the post-Civil War south. In the civil rights era, chain gangs were phased out, seen as cruel and unusual punishment aimed at young black men who make up the majority of the incarcerated.

Ivey’s experimental reinstitution of the chain gang has some softer touches, however.  All the inmates are volunteers, and they are not chained together, just to themselves, with chains stretching between their ankles. The volunteer status is used as an incentive to relieve them from such things as punitive confinement, or labor in other parts of the prison. 

Yet in a different part of the south, Arizona’s Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio uses the concept with less compassion and more punitive measures. Having already cut back on food for inmates, instituted fines for health care, and forcing female inmates to give birth in shackles, Arpaio has been using both men and women in chain gangs for many years.

Chained together, five to a chain, women are put on cemetery duty, burying the county’s indigent and destitute. Enduring devastating heat, intense physical labor, and the emotional wrenching of dealing with the dead, the women are also volunteers — they are vying to get out of punishment cells, where four women are shut into one small cell. 

Having also instituted a chain gang for juveniles convicted as adults, Arpaio is the country’s most controversial sheriff.  In order to (presumably) humiliate the incarcerated, under their striped suits they are made to wear pink underwear. If you wish a taste of this feeling without the intervening step of being arrested in Maricopa County, you may purchase yourself a pair with Arpaio’s signature on them

Overall, between the horrid working conditions, the pink boxer shorts, the birthing in chains, and the restriction on food, it becomes apparent that Arpaio cares little for the condition of his inmates, many of whom are serving relatively short sentences for non-violent crimes, and a great deal for the amount of power he can wield over them. To those who think prison should be about rehabilitation, this is troubling. How can people fully reintegrate into society, when they have been treated so badly?

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Rebecca Gibson

Rebecca Gibson is graduating from Brandeis University with an MA in Women's and Gender Studies and Anthropology. Her major interests include LGBTQ rights, Victorian corsetry, osteology, archaeology, and marriage equality. She has taught, edited, and written for various university publications.

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