Chain Gang Reaction

NEWS that the state of Alabama is again putting its prisoners in chains seems not out of keeping with the times we are now living in. As of this week, gangs of Alabama inmates who are repeat offenders will again be seen chained together out on the state highways, clearing trash and weeds, and being watched over by hounds and stoic law officers cradling shotguns.

The reinstitution of the gangs was supported by Alabama Gov. Fob James and Prison Commissioner Ron Jones ostensibly as a move to save money and deter crime. But it is clearly a symbolic political gesture, an in-your-face response to what many Southerners see as a liberal society overrun with crime and lax or overly tolerant ideas about dealing with criminals. Some 70 percent of Alabamians support the chain gangs. But it should be pointed out that only those age 55 or older can have any remembrance of the presumably golden days of Alabama law and order, when long rows of human beings in striped suits worked the hot and dusty roads.

Human rights groups and liberal alliances of course denounce this graphic new symbol as dehumanizing. But one does not have to oppose putting men in chains out of liberal sentiments. One can oppose it out of Christian sentiments, too.

If a state wants to support work gangs, or the kind of ''tough love'' boot camps that have sprung up to reinforce for prisoners that criminal acts have consequences, that seems at least legitimately in bounds. But there is something about chaining human beings together -- constricting even private movements and forcing prisoners that may hate one another into close proximity -- that crosses an invisible boundary of dignity and personal freedom. It does not dehumanize alone the inmates who shuffle along the highway. It ought to be considered dehumanizing for the residents of Alabama. We have grandparents who as children watched and listened to the clink of chains and instinctively knew it to be wrong. What will the current children of Alabama -- or any state -- be taught by the spectacle of these gangs?

The governor of Alabama admits he does not know if chain gangs deter crime. But he wants to experiment with the idea. Frankly, this seems done not so much to teach a lesson to prisoners -- as it has been done to satisfy angery voters with a tough crackdown. This is a trend no one should welcome.

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