The Clink-Clink of Leg Irons Signals Return to Harsh Era

IT looks more like a scene out of ''Cool Hand Luke'' than a 1990s penal program.

White-suited prisoners, shackled by leg chains, trudge along the shimmering bitumen of the interstate highway collecting trash.

Judged archaic in the 1960s, the Dixieland chain gang is back.

Alabama prison commissioner Ron Jones, who took office three months ago under newly elected Gov. Fob James Jr. (R), is again putting leg irons on prisoners. Dr. Jones cites financial motives and the need to send a clear message to revolving-door criminals who may consider the penitentiary as little more than a temporary inconvenience.

Alabama abolished the chain gang more than 30 years ago. But on May 3, it will be the first state to bring it back.

While ankle-cuffing criminals is one of the more dramatic measures being taken by Southern states, politicians nationwide are responding to public demands that they punish crooks more harshly.

In Mississippi, prisoners now wear striped uniforms with the word ''convict'' branded on the back. Ten states are considering caning. Others are abolishing television privileges, radios, weight-room facilities, and computers.

''There is quite a bit of interest by state legislatures on how prisoners spend their time and how it can be made to not seem cushy,'' says Donna Hunzeker, criminal justice program manager for the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.

Politicians on the federal level are also cracking down. Rep. Dick Zimmer (R) of New Jersey has introduced the ''No Frills Prison Act,'' which would eliminate in-cell televisions, personal computers, and other amenities from federal prisons.

These moves ''reflect a get-tougher mode,'' says John Smykla, chairman of the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. ''It's part of a climate where the public wants to see something done'' and politicians are responding.

Too punitive?

Still, many observers are concerned about the consequences of this get-tough attitude. ''Every prison official I know is worried that their prisons will become unmanageable if they're that punitive,'' says Alvin Bronstein, director of the National Prison Project at the American Civil Liberties Union based in Washington.

A hostage standoff last week at a prison in South Carolina shows what could happen more often, Mr. Bronstein says.

In that incident, several inmates stabbed five guards in a revolt sparked by new rules that require them to cut their hair. Some Muslim and Rastafarian inmates say cutting their hair would violate their religious beliefs. Inmates are also upset at the elimination of work-release furloughs and statements by South Carolina Gov. David Beasley (R) to abolish parole and make prison time harder to serve.

In Alabama, Jones says that while he hopes the chain gang will deter repeat offenders from committing crimes, his primary aim is to save money.

''I inherited a prison-operating budget $12 million in the red, and between now and Oct. 1 I have to get rid of that,'' he says. ''I've been forced to find all kinds of ways to do things more efficiently. The chain gang grew out of that.'' By chaining prisoners together, Jones says he won't need as many guards to man them.

Inmates who work on the chain gang will be part of a 400-man unit in a correctional facility in northern Alabama. This ''restriction crew'' will consist of repeat offenders, who consistently land back in prison despite participating in education, psychological counseling, and rehabilitation programs, Jones says. They will spend a minimum of 30 days and a maximum of 90 days there where they'll be allowed access to the library but be denied visitation, television, radio, and other privileges.

The roadside clean-up gangs will comprise groups of five inmates linked by eight-foot chains that resemble handcuffs.

For the past month, Alabama has been testing the leg irons on inmates at Draper Correctional Center, a medium-security prison in Elmore County, north of Montgomery. For eight hours each day, about 23 inmates work in chains on a farm outside the prison. The inmates are part of a segregation unit and have been denied privileges because of disciplinary problems.

Many say the chains are degrading. ''I don't believe nobody wants to be chained like a dog,'' says David Bowles, a young prisoner serving 10 years for robbery. ''But we did what we did so we're paying the cost.''

Wearing chains to teach a lesson

Chris Coachman, in his teens, is serving 20 years for attempted murder. He says the leg irons hurt sometimes when another inmate stops suddenly and jerks the chain, which cuts into the ankle. But Mr. Coachman says people who drive by the chain gang may think twice about committing a crime. ''It might teach people a lesson,'' he concedes.

Jones rebuts critics who say the practice will turn inmates into animals. ''It's going to force them to learn to cooperate. To simply go from point A to point B requires all five cooperating.''

And although he has not encountered much opposition to the chain gang in Alabama, some people here are concerned at the image it portrays. ''It only hardens our attitudes about criminals in some ways,'' Dr. Smykla says. ''I'm also somewhat concerned about its impact on the state's tourism.''

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