Chain gangs are back

In the 1990ís some American states re-introduced chain gangs for inmates of its prisons. (Chain gangs were first instituted in America in the seventeenth century.) Groups of up to 15 prisoners are taken out of prison to do menial, manual labour outdoors. A metal band around the left ankle of each prisoner connects him or her to a heavy chain to keep them together when they are out doing jobs like weeding public parks and picking up litter in the city streets.

In Arizona prisoners volunteer to work on the chain gang for eight hours a day, seven days a week for 30 days to end their detention in the most crowded prison cells (four prisoners in a cell 2.5m by 3m) - a form of detention called lock down used as a punishment for prisoners who break prison rules.

Knowing he has over 80% public approval for his scheme, the police chief responsible for the prisons in Arizona is quite outspoken: "Forget all that stuff about rehabilitation. I'm not an educator. I'm not a social worker. I'm a cop. Prison is punishment, so let's punish."

This was the man who decided to expand prisons by putting hundreds of prisoners in tents in a desert climate where temperatures can reach 50 degrees in the summer. He banned coffee and tobacco, replaced hot meals with sandwiches, stopped showing films and limited TV to one set per 900 inmates.

Dana Stanley, aged 28, a prostitute and one of the inmates on the first female chain gang was quick to condemn the practice when the group was allowed to speak to journalists. "Putting women on a chain gang is wrong. I'm only doing it so I can get back into the main jail. I was put in lock down just for talking to the men, which is prohibited, but then I don't think prostitution should be a crime anyway."

Another woman, serving a one year sentence for shooting at her abusive husband (she missed) said she didn't know whether the idea of chain gangs was inhumane, but whe was unrepentant about her own crime. She vowed, "I'll get him next time."

Although the harsher prison regimes are very popular with voters there is no evidence that they have deterred criminals. Crime levels in areas with the most punitive regimes are no lower than those in areas with more liberal regimes. There is also no evidence that the experience of prison regimes like that in Arizona reforms criminals and persuades them to turn over a new leaf. No politician dare speak out against them, though, because only those who advocate getting even tougher on crime get reelected.