Chain Gangs

Are they archaic, brutal and inhumane or do they work to lower the recidivistic crime rate?

by Justine Sturm

How do we as a society lower the recidivistic crime rate in New Zealand? Why do we allow repeat offenders to ‘get away’ with their crimes over and over again? Our Government and Justice System wait until these repeat criminals commit some heinous crime with untold victims until they finally put them behind bars in some politically correct, cotton wool environment that does nothing but babysit them in a time-out atmosphere. Isn’t it time to say enough is enough and punish these people for their decision to commit a crime? Could reverting back to such punishments as Chain Gangs be the answer? Punish criminals for their choices, make prison a hard graft, and initiate the thought process of making people accountable for their actions.

While such initiatives as home detention, electronic monitoring, community service, self-help programmes and counselling all have their place, what about plain old hard labour to reiterate over and over, day in day out to these repeat offenders that crime does not pay. Crime is a worldwide pandemic, reducing the recidivism rate is a hard-fought and on-going battle.

Chain Gangs have been re-introduced in some States of America, with strong support and some opposition. Some people, particularly in the United States, are willing to go against the popular ‘PC’ call and are brave enough to take a stand against crime, and re-introducing chain gangs may be the long sought after answer we as a society have been looking for. Chain Gangs have a place in our Justice System, let’s get tough and stand up and fight for our future generations.

Chain Gangs were introduced in the United States of America in the mid-1800s. William Penn created a penal code known as Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisoners. He introduced this code to try and reduce the corporal and capital punishment that was inflicted upon the prisoners (Anderson, Dyson & Brooks, 2000). Chain gangs were brought in to replace such punishments as public floggings, mutilations, torture and executions. The objectives of the prison Chain Gangs were primarily punishment, but also to reduce the amount of idle time a prisoner had, as a deterrent to others, offsetting the cost of incarceration and of course the free labour (Broemmel, 2009).

The inevitable exploitation of inmates began to occur when a lease system was introduced in some States. Prisoners were leased cheaply by corporations and profiteers (Anderson, Dyson & Brooks, 2000). They were forced to work tirelessly under despicable conditions. The corporations were supposed to provide food, shelter, medical needs and reasonable working conditions in exchange for the cheap labour. This was far from the reality.

Accounts of convicts having to work eat and sleep whilst still in shackles, eat rotting and infested food, sleeping within quarters that were cages housing 18 cots and flea infested filthy bedding (Abril & Allen, 1997). Medical needs were minimalistic if at all, sores, malnutrition, broken bones and self-inflicted injuries were left to fester and go gangrenous (Anderson, Dyson & Brooks, 2000). Convicts were grouped together with thick iron chains, soldered bracelets around their ankles (Allen & Abril, 1997). These often rubbed and caused massive lesions and infections on the prisoners’ legs. The convicts were expected to work from sun up to sun down, often in unforgiving heat (Anderson, Dyson & Brooks, 2000).

Sherriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona has been instrumental in reinstating Chain Gangs into today’s society and justice system. Sherriff Arpaio has re-introduced Chain Gangs, his theory is to shame, restrict and to take a tough approach towards these convicted criminals. 1993 saw Sheriff Joe obtain Army tents and erect them within a barbed wire compound close to the City Pound and Dump (Finnegan, 2009).

He is quoted as saying “It is not a spa – its punishment” (Arpaio, 1993). Voters have rallied around Arpaio and his officials, supporting his humiliation tactics; black and white outfits for chain gangs, the controversial introduction of pink underwear, sock, jandals and handcuffs – saying that pink is a soothing colour (Finnegan, 2009). Arpaio is on his fifth four-year term in office and is standing for a sixth in 2012 (Finnegan, 2009). Support is also there for Sherriff Joe’s enforced deprivation. No cigarettes, no contact visitation, no movies, coffee, pornographic or skin publications, no salt and pepper and limited television channels (Finnegan, 2009). His theory is that prison is a punishment so why should convicted criminals be allowed to have privileges?

Modern day chain gang inmates are chained together using lighter metals, usually at the waist 1-2 metres apart, or chained separately, using ankle cuffs and chains. Stun belts are used in some States of America, using modern technology instead of older style restraints (Allen & Abril, 1997). Chain Gangs perform hard labour such as cleaning public parks, clearing land, road works, picking up rubbish and basic community repairs (Anderson, Dyson & Brooks, 2000). Sherriff Joe has chain gangs under his control burying the unnamed, poverty stricken and homeless people from the surrounding County (Finnegan, 2009).

While the duties may be a little easier and the chains a little lighter, the weather is still extreme and the gangs are expected to work up to 12 hour days for as long as 120 day stretches (Allen & Abril, 1997). Sherriff Joe says his Chain Gangs act as a deterrent to the youth of his County (Finnegan, 2009). Prisoners are seen in plain view on the side of the road toiling under harsh condition, wearing their distinctive clothing. Parents use them as an example to their children (Finnegan, 2009).

Opponents claim that the Chain Gang image provokes that of black slavery, racism and brutality of the mid 1800s onward. (Allen & Abril, 1997) The Chain Gangs of old were barbaric, with limited food, extreme work conditions, little or no medical care, and torturous treatment by the guards. Opponents see Chain Gangs as inhumane and archaic (Allen & Abril, 1997). “Research shows that Chain Gangs enhance the feelings of humiliation, frustration, unworthiness, and racism by convicted criminals” (Allen & Abril, 1997). “They are not rehabilitated, do not attend betterment courses, and address issues of anger management or other self-help programmes” (Anderson, Dyson & Brooks, 2000). When the inmates leave prison are they more likely to wander down a familiar path of criminogenic factors or have the strength of character to change their lifestyle? Chain Gangs “punish, not rehabilitate or educate” (Anderson, Dyson & Brooks, 2000).

Supporters of Chain Gangs being introduced into New Zealand prisons would like to see such punishment integrated into our justice system. Chain Gangs are seen as a way to make prisoners, serial reoffenders, take responsibility for their actions. “Stop blaming social factors and personal circumstances for their choice to commit crimes” (McVicar, 2010). Prison for New Zealanders is a ‘cushy’ number, three hot meals per day, cigarettes, visitations, television, exercise and programmes galore aimed at lifestyle changes, why wouldn’t the average criminal want to reoffend? Shouldn’t we stop pandering to the rights of the prisoners – they gave up their rights when they chose to commit a crime?

In New Zealand going to prison is the punishment. Prisoners in New Zealand do have rights…..far beyond that of third world countries. Rights such as an 0800 number for the prisoners to call should they feel their human rights are being breached, and getting paid to work within the prison system. By using prison as a punishment as it is supposed to be, and removing prisoner privileges and making inmates work, it may well be a recipe for a reduced recidivistic crime rate. In today’s politically correct world physical labour is seen as inhumane, archaic, cruel and out-dated.

Racist is another way that Chain Gangs have been described, this may be given to the fact that historically a high percentage of prisoners in any American prison was African American. These days that percentage is lower but it is still a lot higher than Europeans in the same prison system. In New Zealand the percentage of Maori inmates is approximately 50% (Dept. Of Corrections, 2007). Imagine the outcry from such activists as Titiwhai Harewera, who only recently claimed to a United Nations representative that New Zealand Maori have no human rights in this country (Davies, 2010), if we as a nation introduced Chain Gangs as a form of punishment.

So does such enforced punishment like hard labour and Chain Gangs help to reduce reoffending, or is it just cheap labour for the prisons and local government to benefit from? By forcing prisoners to work are we punishing ourselves by reintegrating criminals into our communities that have not been rehabilitated or counselled? It is difficult to get accurate data on recidivistic crime rates and the influence chain gangs have on them.

Proponents say that public humiliation, loss of privileges and harsh living and working conditions whilst incarcerated are working in some States to reduce the reoffending rates (Allen & Abril, 1997). It is said that Chain Gangs as well as help reduce reoffending, assist with in-prison disciplinary issues, shame prisoners and help to reduce the number of crimes committed within the prison system (Anderson. J, Dyson. L, & Brooks. W, 2000). Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s ‘success’ rate sits between 15-30% of his prisoners reoffending. This goes a long way against the national trend of around 85% in the States. While this statistic shows that taking a tough stance against crime does pay, some criminologists say that correctional practices of systems devoid of rehabilitation, treatments and counselling fail to discourage future criminal behaviour (Anderson, Dyson, & Brooks, 2000).

While the modern chain gang is less likely to be exploited as the days of old, it is “used as a political ploy, photo opportunity, and grandstanding to placate the voters demand that local and national government’s take a hard line on crime “(Allen & Abril, 1997). Politicians are rife with their campaign promises and vote collector comments, and yet we as a Nation still vote for the hope that one day someone will be brave enough to stand up and make the changes that are needed to reduce the recidivism and to punish the prisoners that are incarcerated.

It is time to stop leaning on the excuse driven mentality of the more liberal thinkers (McVicar, 2010), and start to make people accountable for their actions. I see implementing the chain gang into our Justice System as a provocative yet positive stance against crime. What has happened to society being outraged over crime? “It has been replaced with political correctness.”(Lockwood, 2002). There is the opinion that Chain Gangs will not reduce the crime rate or recidivistic tendencies of the career criminal (Allen & Abril, 1997). Instead it is thought that the increase in frustration and aggression due to the humiliation may in fact increase the recidivistic rates.

On the other hand Arpaio’s prisoners state that being on a chain gang gives them the opportunity to get some fresh air and do something with their time (Lockwood, 2002). By restricting the ‘luxuries’ of the prisoners and making them aware that they have a responsibility to themselves, their victims, and to the wider community to pay for their choice to commit crime, it is an on-going but hard fought battle to reduce the recidivism rate in the criminal community. Whether chain gangs are ever to be implemented into New Zealand’s Justice System is a question a lot of supporters for fair sentencing and just punishment in this country would like to hear the answer to.

Allen, H.E., & Abril, J.C. (1997, Oct.3). The new chain gang: Corrections in the next century.
American Journal of Criminal Justice, 22 (1), 1-12.

Anderson, J.F., Dyson, L., Brooks, W. (2000). Alabama prison chain gangs: reverting to archaic punishment to reduce crime and discipline offenders.
The Western Journal of Black Studies, 24 (1), 9-15.

Broemmel, M., (2010). The history of chain gangs. Retrieved July 10, 2010, from

Department of Corrections, New Zealand (Sept. 2007). Over-representation of Maori in the criminal justice system. Retrieved July 26, 2010 from

Finnegan, W., (2009). Sheriff Joe. New Yorker, 85 (21), 42-53.

Gibbs, A., & King, D., (2003). The electronic ball and chain? The operation and impact of home detention with electronic monitoring in New Zealand.
The Australasian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 36 (1), 1-17.

Lockwood, M., (2002, March). What’s really happening in Sheriff Joe’s Jail? Retrieved August 08, 2010 from

McVicar, G., (2007, Nov.). SST in Arizona. Sensible Sentencing Trust Newsletter 18, p.2. Retrieved July 17, 2010, from
Sensible Sentencing Trust November 2007 Newsletter

Morris, N., & Rothman, D.J. (1995). The Oxford history of the prison; the practice of punishment in western society. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.

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