Chain Gangs




Prisons have been used as the way of punishment in the United States since its beginning. Throughout the history of prisons, convicts have been used as labor. The methods of labor, the number of laborers, and the arguments for or against has constantly been changing. From the early chain gangs to the prison industries of today, prisoners have been used as labor in the United States. When people think of chain gangs, they usually think of people in white and black stripes, being forced to work in a harsh environment. This was often true. Employees, also called “leasees”, were in charge of the inmates. They often treated the inmates brutally. The name “chain gang” probably comes from the fact that the inmates were chained together at the legs to reduce the chance of escape. (Reynolds 181) Inmates were often controlled by whips and other harsh disciplines and punishments. People argued that the treatment was just because of the increased chance of escape in chain gangs. (Reynolds 182) People also thought that the chain gangs would deter crime, but studies show that they failed to deter. (Brownstein 179) The living conditions were often unsanitary, crowded, and poorly constructed. (Reynolds 182) These bad conditions of the past have given the chain gang an extremely bad rap. The way people view chain gangs has changed several times throughout their history in the United States. The earliest history of chain gangs holds the cause for the bad views of them. The public sees chain gangs as a racist part of the old South. The first chain gangs began in England and the northern part of the United States during the eighteenth century. (Reynolds 180) Even though chain gangs were legal in almost every state, the South seemed to be the only region using them. Some reasons for this include the bad climate of the North and the public’s thoughts against chain gangs. (Reynolds 183) Another reason why we see the South as the source of chain gangs is because it was the region that needed them the most. The South used chain gangs because after the Civil War there was a labor shortage. The labor shortage and an escalation in crime caused the South to begin leasing out convict labor. (Reynolds 180) It did not take long for convict leasing to spread. After the Civil War the South had to rebuild. That is why most of the states in the South had convict labor by 1875. The most common workers of the chain gang were county inmates who worked on the roads. A large amount of repairs was needed to mend the roads that were destroyed during the war. Many convicts were also leased out to farms in the South to replace the slaves who were freed because of the Civil War. (Reynolds 180) The South was still a farming region with many large plantations that needed workers. Southerners were accustomed to having cheap labor so convict labor was thought as a good solution. There seemed to be no concern for welfare of the convicts or the jobs of others. Nobody cared that chain gangs were humiliating and degrading to inmates, which was against the eighth amendment, preventing cruel and unusual punishment. (Brownstein 179) Early chain gangs were used only for economic gain. Convicts made money page 4 which helped to support themselves and were used as cheap labor. Rehabilitation was not a concern back then. (Reynolds 181) Some people did worry about the bad treatment of the convicts. Other people worried that convict labor took jobs from average citizens. During the twenties workers in many jobs had decided to form unions to protect their jobs from bad conditions. The unions that formed in the early twentieth century also opposed the labor of chain gangs. The unions’ concerns and the inhumane treatment caused the downfall of the convict lease system in the South by 1920. (Reynolds 181) Private owners would no longer be able to lease prisoners. During this time period cars and better transportation was becoming important. The old lease system was replaced by the commonly known public works system. The atmosphere of the country during the “Roaring Twenties” caused chain gangs to be used on roads very often. (Reynolds