A chain gang is a group of prisoners chained together to perform menial or physically challenging work as a form of punishment. Such punishment might include repairing buildings, building roads, or clearing land.[1] This system existed primarily[citation needed] in the Southern United States, and by 1955 had been phased out nationwide, with Georgia the last state to abandon the practice.[2] Chain gangs were reintroduced by a few states during the "get tough on crime" 1990s, with Alabama being the first state to revive them in 1995. The experiment ended after about one year in all states except Arizona,[3] where in Maricopa County inmates can still volunteer for a chain gang to earn credit toward a high school diploma or avoid disciplinary lockdowns for rule infractions.[4] The introduction of chain gangs into the United States began shortly after the American Civil War. The southern states needed finances and public works to be performed. Prisoners were a free way for these works to be achieved.[5]

Synonyms and disambiguation

A single ankle shackle with a short length of chain attached to a heavy ball is known as a ball and chain. It limited prisoner movement and impeded escape.

Two ankle shackles attached to each other by a short length of chain are known as a hobble or as leg irons. These could be chained to a much longer chain with several other prisoners, creating a work crew known as a chain gang. The walk required to avoid tripping while in leg irons is known as the convict shuffle.

A group of prisoners working outside prison walls under close supervision, but without chains, is a work gang. Their distinctive attire (stripe wear or orange vests or jumpsuits) and shaven heads served the purpose of displaying their punishment to the public, as well as making them identifiable if they attempt to escape. However, the public was often brutal, swearing at convicts and even throwing things at them.[6]

The use of chains could be hazardous. Some of the chains used in the Georgia system in the first half of the twentieth century weighed 20 pounds (9 kg). Some prisoners suffered from shackle sores — ulcers where the iron ground against their skin. Gangrene and other infections were serious risks. Falls could imperil several individuals at once.

Modern prisoners are sometimes put into handcuffs or wrist manacles (similar to handcuffs, but with a longer length of chain) and leg irons, with both sets of manacles (wrist and ankle) being chained to a belly chain. This form of restraint is most often used on prisoners expected to be violent, or prisoners appearing in a setting where they may be near the public (a courthouse) or have an opportunity to flee (being transferred from a prison to a court). Although prisoners in these restraints are sometimes chained to one another during transport or other movement, this is not a chain gang — although reporters may refer to it as such — because the restraints make any kind of manual work impossible.


1842 illustration of chain gang going to work near Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
1816 illustration of Christian slaves in Algiers

Various claims as to the purpose of chain gangs have been offered. These include:

  • punishment
  • societal restitution for the cost of housing, feeding, and guarding the inmates. The money earned by work performed goes to offset prison expenses by providing a large workforce at no cost for government projects, and at minimal convict leasing cost for private businesses[citation needed]
  • a way of perpetuating African-American servitude after the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution ended slavery outside of the context of punishment for a crime.[7]
  • reducing inmates' idleness
  • to serve as a deterrent to crime
  • to satisfy the needs of politicians to appear "tough on crime" for public
  • to accomplish undesirable and difficult tasks

The use of chain gangs for prison labor was the preferred method of punishment in some southern states like Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, Texas, Mississippi, and Alabama.[8]

The use of chain gangs in the United States generally ended in 1955.

Chain gangs experienced a resurgence when Alabama began to use them again in 1995.[7]


Parchman Farm chain gang, 1911
Chain gang of juvenile convicts in the US, 2006

Several jurisdictions in the United States have re-introduced prison labor. In recent years, Maricopa County, Arizona, which includes Phoenix, Arizona, and its then-Sheriff Joe Arpaio, have drawn attention from human rights groups for the use of chain gangs for both men and women.[9][better source needed] Arizona's modern chain gangs, rather than chipping rocks, digging ditches or other non-productive tasks, often do work of economic benefit to a correctional department, such as removing trash.[10][non-primary source needed] Opponents claim that the gangs often work outside in oppressive desert heat.

A year after reintroducing the chain gang in 1995, Alabama was forced to again abandon the practice pending a lawsuit from, among other organizations, the Southern Poverty Law Center. "They realized that chaining them together was inefficient; that it was unsafe", said attorney Richard Cohen of the organization. However, as late as 2000, Alabama Prison Commissioner Ron Jones has again proposed reintroducing the chain gang. The 1995 reintroduction has been called "commercial slavery" by some in academic circles.[11]

Tim Hudak, former leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario in Canada, campaigned on introducing penal labor in the province, referred to by many as chain gangs.[12] He lost seats to the provincial Liberals which formed another majority government in the subsequent general election.

In popular media

See also


  1. ^ "Chain Gangs". Credo Reference. Retrieved 3 October 2013. 
  2. ^ Roth, Mitchel P (2006). Prisons and prison systems. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 56–57. ISBN 0-313-32856-0. 
  3. ^ Banks, Cyndi (2005). Punishment in America: a reference handbook. ABC-CLIO. pp. 154–156. ISBN 1-85109-676-0. 
  4. ^ CNN (March 10, 2004). "Anderson Cooper 360 transcript". CNN. Retrieved 2009-06-07. 
  5. ^ Wallenstein, Peter. "Chain Gangs". Credo Reference. Retrieved 2 October 2013. 
  6. ^ McShane, Marilyn D. (1996). Encyclopedia of American Prisons. Garland Publishing Inc. p. 71. ISBN 0-8153-1350-0. 
  7. ^ a b Gorman, Tessa M. (March 1997). "Back on the Chain Gang: Why the Eighth Amendment and the History of Slavery Proscribe the Resurgence of Chain Gangs". California Law Review. California Law Review, Vol. 85, No. 2. 85 (2): 441–478. doi:10.2307/3481074. JSTOR 3481074. 
  8. ^ McShane, Marilyn D. (1996). The Encyclopedia of American Prisons. Garland Publishing Inc. pp. 71–73. ISBN 0-8153-1350-0. 
  9. ^ "Joe Arpaio". Target of Opportunity. Retrieved 13 May 2013. 
  10. ^ "Turning Back the Hands of Time – Chain Gangs" (PDF). Maricopa County Sheriff's Office. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-07-22. Retrieved 13 May 2013. 
  11. ^ Meares, Tracey (February 1996). "Weak Link". The University of Chicago Magazine. 88 (3). Retrieved 2007-09-26. 
  12. ^ Benzie, Robert (July 18, 2011). "Hudak's chain-gang proposal is a danger to public, Liberals warn". Toronto Star. Retrieved August 3, 2011. 
  13. ^ Chain Gang (1950) Turner Classic Movies

Further reading

  • Burns, Robert E. I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang! University of Georgia Press; Brown Thrasher Ed edition (October 1997; original copyright, late 1920s).
  • Childs, Dennis. Slaves of the State: Black Incarceration from the Chain Gang to the Penitentiary. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.
  • Colvin, Mark. Penitentiaries, Reformatories, and Chain Gangs: Social Theory and the History of Punishment in Nineteenth-Century America. Palgrave Macmillan (2000). ISBN 0-312-22128-2.
  • Curtin, Mary Ellen. Black Prisoners and Their World : Alabama, 1865–1900. University of Virginia Press (2000).
  • Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Vintage Books (1979). ISBN 0-394-72767-3.
  • Lichtenstein, Alex. Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South. Verso (1995). ISBN 1-85984-086-8.
  • Mancini, Matthew J. One Dies, Get Another: Convict Leasing in the American South, 1866–1928. University of South Carolina Press (1996). ISBN 1-57003-083-9.
  • Oshinsky, David M. Worse than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice. (1997). ISBN 0-684-83095-7.

External links