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Chain gangs arrive - in Yankee country

By Yvonne ZippStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 25, 1999



SWANSEA, MASS.

Under the summer sun, 10 men wearing bright-red prison jumpsuits and stainless-steel ankle chains wield rakes, filling bags with litter and broken glass.

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Warm day, shackled men, prison labor. No, the setting isn't the rural South, but rather Yankee country - Massachusetts to be precise, a state that prides itself on its abolitionist history and liberal traditions.

When this team of inmates picked up their rakes and shovels last week, it made Massachusetts the 10th state in the nation to use chain gangs - and touched off a furor among residents. In town meetings from Dartmouth to Taunton, where citizens often debated the merits of "work crews" long into the night, the discussion comes down this: Do the work crews, even if voluntary, amount to rehabilitation, or public humiliation?

"I don't treat my animals that way - I don't want people treated that way," said Dartmouth town historian Kathleen Thayer at this week's meeting, where local officials unanimously declined to take part in the program. "I'm not comfortable with it as a citizen of a United States that promises no cruel and unusual punishment, and I'm not comfortable with it as a human being."

The debate takes place against a national backdrop of harsher treatment for convicts, led by those who say days spent watching TV and hoisting barbells are inadequate punishment for criminals.

Some states, experts say, have gone so far as to tilt toward public humiliation as a means of punishment. States have set up Web sites that publish the names of deadbeat dads and men who solicit prostitutes, and New Hampshire is considering a bill that would allow juvenile offenders to be caned in public.

"You would not have predicted that Massachusetts would have been a place where chain gangs would have shown up. But there is an overall movement in this country toward disgracing criminals," says James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston. "There has been a return to the pillory and the scarlet letter.... I'm surprised we don't have dunce caps."

Chain gangs, go home

So far, five Massachusetts towns have made it clear the crews aren't welcome; three say they'll allow them. Last week, the mayor of Fall River ordered the sheriff and inmates, who were building a baseball field for local children, to leave. And some state lawmakers are drafting legislation that would make chain gangs illegal.

But Tom Hodgson, sheriff of Bristol County and organizer of the state's first work crew, says rehabilitation - of both inmates and public spaces - is the driving force behind the idea. "Nobody wants anybody to be humiliated," he said at the Dartmouth town meeting.

Sheriff Hodgson says the crews are a way for inmates to learn a work ethic while cleaning up trash-strewn areas towns didn't have the money to fix themselves. "Since the taxpayers pay to house [inmates], it's a way to pay back the community."

He and other officials insist the work crew is nothing like old-style chain gangs, where crews, mostly African-American, broke rock all day under punishing conditions. And, he points out, it's strictly voluntary.

To many, a volunteer chain gang is as big an oxymoron as "honest politician." But members of the new Bristol County Tandem Work Crews don't see it that way. For them, it's a day at the beach - literally. Today's task was clearing trash from Bluffs Beach in Swansea so residents can catch rays on clean sand.

"I've been in a lot of jails, and this is the first one that's let you do something to give back," says Lawrence Woodsum, who has 18 months left at the Bristol County House of Corrections. "I'd rather be here cleaning than sitting in a little cell."

But what about the ankle braclets?

As for the public outcry over the stainless-steel links around their ankles, they are adamant: "It's not humiliating, it's not humiliating at all!" says Chris, who nonetheless asked that his last name not be used.

"What's more degrading is the life some of us had on the streets," adds Jos, a Latino inmate with a dry sense of humor. "At least we're doing something for the kids."

But if the purpose is not to degrade, why clap the inmates in chains? residents ask.

"I don't mind work, so long as they are not clearly identified and shackled," says Mr. Fox. "We should not be making this a condition for getting fresh air."

While experts say there is no escaping the symbolism of chains, Hodgson dismisses the imagery argument. "People say this conjures up images of slavery. If you follow that line of reasoning, we should shut down every mill in Massachusetts," he says, referring to the turn-of-the-century textile mills that exploited child labor.

But the symbolism was the very reason chain gangs were reintroduced in other states, experts say.

"In Alabama and elsewhere, part of it was to shame them, humiliate them so that it would have a deterring effect," says Richard Moran, professor of criminology at Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass.

An uncomfortable fit

That's not an image that necessarily fits with New Englanders' views of themselves.

"There's a feeling that in Massachusetts we're much more enlightened than this," Mr. Moran says. "People don't want to be stigmatized. They don't want to be thought of as those sorts of people."

The inmates say it would be crueler to have the sunshine and fresh air - not to mention a feeling of pride in their work - taken from them.

But some say they wouldn't want their families to see them working in chains.

"Yeah, I'd probably cry," says crew member Scott Rigo, who visited Bluffs Beach with his children the weekend before he went to prison.

But, the burly inmate adds, "There's not too many decisions I've gotten to make in the past 15 months. It feels good to make one."