In Maricopa County,
Arizona (Phoenix), Sheriff Joe Arpaio is the self-proclaimed “toughest
sheriff in America.” He requires his inmates “to enroll
in chain gangs to perform various community services. The alternative
is lockdown with three other inmates in an 8- by 12-foot cell,
for 23 hours a day. Chain gang participants wear uniforms with
black and white stripes, to “make examples of the bad prisoners
to the community.” He also makes them wear pink underwear.
More than 2,000 inmates are placed in tents, outside
the jail. Since they are there in the summer, you can imagine
what that may be like where temperatures average well over 100
degrees. Most of the 8,000 or so who reside in his jail are awaiting
trial simply because they could not afford bail. Others
are serving short sentences. Another report noted that he
had 15 women “padlocked together by the ankle, five to each chain,
and marched military style out to a van that transported them
to their work site – a county cemetery half an hour out of the
city in the desert. The women had to bury the bodies of indigents
who had died in the streets or in the hospital without family
and without the money to pay for a proper funeral.” In Ohio,
another ultra-conservative Sheriff has introduced chain gangs.
Florida has also introduced chain gangs.
Chain gangs are obviously linked with slavery. One
report noted that chain gangs had been re-introduced in Alabama,
where they became “a new roadside attraction.” A very popular
one apparently, reflected in the following statement by a spectator:
“I love seeing ‘em in chains. They ought to make them pick cotton.”
The writer reporting on this scene had this insightful comment:
The connection with slavery did not escape notice
of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as they filed
a complaint noting that 60 percent of the Alabama’s inmates are
Most of the arguments put forth by supporters revolve
around two issues, both of which ignore race: saving money and
deterrence. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio uses old-fashioned
common-sense deterrence logic, saying that “I use it for deterrence
to fight crime. I put them right on the street where everyone
can see them. If a kid asks his mother, she can tell them this
is what happens to people who break the law.” When inmates complain
he merely says “If you don't like it, don't come back.” However,
a spokeswoman in his jail told a reporter that “60 percent of
inmates did in fact come back for more than one term.” The Sheriff
of Butler County, Ohio said “I want ‘em to leave here with a bad
feeling in their mouth.” It’s the familiar theme that we
are “soft on crime.” As for money saved, one Sheriff stated that
having work crews out six days per week picking up trash, doing
work at public parks and for nonprofit organizations “saves taxpayers
up to $160,000 per month, or about $1.9 million per year.”
The fact that most of these prisoners are black
seems to escape the notice of supporters of chain gangs, but not
several critics. One critic’s comment, at the time Alabama
re-introduced chain gangs, sounds vaguely familiar: “A group of
men, most of them black, chained to each other like animals, being
marched along dusty country roads to perform meaningless but painful
labor: here is an inspiring vignette for the direction taken by
the American criminal justice system.” When Florida followed
Alabama’s lead and re-introduced the chain gang, Amnesty International
was quick to point out the obvious:
This report also noted several violations of International
Human Rights provisions, to wit:
Amnesty International believes that the practice
of using chain gangs constitutes cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,
prohibited under Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil
and Political Rights, (ICCPR) ratified by the US Government on
8 June 1992.
Article 10 of the ICCPR says: All persons deprived
of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect
for the inherent dignity of the human person.
Article 33 of the United Nations Standard Minimum
Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (SMR) states: instruments
of restraint, such as handcuffs, chains, irons and strait jackets,
shall never be applied as a punishment. Furthermore, chains or
irons shall not be used as restraints.
Article 45 (1) of the SMR states: When prisoners
are being removed to or from an institution, they shall be exposed
to public view as little as possible, and proper safeguards shall
be adopted to protect them from insult, curiosity and publicity
in any form.
The most recent data show that nationwide blacks
are far more likely to find themselves inside a local jail than
any other racial group: as of mid-2004, their incarceration rate
stood at 765, more than four times that of whites (160) and about
three times the rate for Hispanics (262). Altogether, racial
minorities constituted about 60 percent of jail inmates.
Racial overrepresentation is even more dramatic within the largest
urban jails. The proportion of jail inmates who are racial
minorities is greater than 50 percent in most urban jails, with
some reaching higher than 80 percent (Los Angeles, 85.5%, Chicago,
90%, New York City, 93%, Philadelphia and Baltimore, 86%, Detroit,
The same can be said with our prison population.
At midyear, 2004 the overall incarceration rate (prisons plus
jails) for black males was 4,919 (per 100,000) compared to only
717 for white males and 1,717 for Hispanic males; for women, the
rate for blacks was 359 compared to 81 for white women and 143
for Hispanic women.
It has also been noted that the lifetime chances
of a black male of going to prison is about one-third! Such
a dramatic statistic needs more detailed elaboration, which will
be done in the next section.
Chances of Going to Prison Becoming Greater
“The lifetime chances of going to prison reached
6.6% in 2001, up from 1.9% in 1974.” This is the title of
figure 3 in a recent report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Even more revealing, however, is what is found in Table 9, part
of which is reprinted below.
Lifetime chances of going to State of Federal prison
for the first time.
Source: Bonczar, T. P. (2003). Prevalence
of Imprisonment in the U.S. Population, 1974-2001. Washington,
DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, August.
Another table in this same report reveals that the
percentage of the adult population “ever incarcerated” in a prison
as of 2001 was 8.5% for black males between the age of 18 and
24 (compared to only 1.1% of white males in that age group); for
black males 25-34 the percentage was 20.4, compared to 2.8% of
white males; for ages 35-44 the percentage of black males was
22 compared to 3.5 for white males. The percentages for
Hispanic males stood between whites and blacks (4%, 9% and 10%
respectively). The differences for females according to
race were similar.
The report clearly shows that with each new cohort
in the past 50 plus years the chances of going to prison has risen.
In 2001 about 2.7 percent of all adults had been to prison (5.6
million); by the year 2010 it is estimated that this will rise
to 3.4 percent (7.7 million). Given that blacks are four
or five times more likely than whites to ever experience incarceration,
this suggests that by 2010 between 12 and 15 percent of all blacks
will be in prison, if recent incarceration trends continue.
Another way of viewing these trends is to look at
the sheer numbers. At midyear 2004, a total of 910,200 black
people were in prison or jail, representing 48 percent of the
total; Hispanics represented another 20 percent of the total.
About 1.4 million were in prison alone and about 47% were black.
Taking the above estimate for the total number in prison in 2010
(7.7 million), this means that about 3.6 million blacks will be
in prison if recent trends continue.
What should be noted here is that these projections
do not include the probabilities of being in jail on any given
day. It is hard to imagine the proportion of the black population
(especially young black males) who have experienced some contact
with the criminal justice system in recent years, let alone the
proportion that will have had such contact by the year 2010.
We know from a study by the Sentencing Project that in 1995 about
one-third of black males in their 20s were somewhere in the criminal
justice system (prison, jail, probation and parole). This
was ten years ago and the estimate has not been updated.
The most recent survey on probation and parole was for 2003.
Although they do not break it down by age, at that time blacks
were 30 percent of those on probation and 41 percent of those
on parole. We do know that the largest proportion of black
males in prison or jail is in their 20s (38%), so it would be
safe to assume the same for those on probation and parole.
However, we do not have the numbers on probation and parole broken
down by race and age. It is probably safe to say, however,
that the proportion of black males in their 20s within the criminal
justice system on any given day is much greater than one-third.
It is clear that what we have here is another form
of slavery, a more advanced development of what I and others have
called the “new American apartheid.” It may even be called a form
of fascism, with the ultimate goal, like Nazi Germany, of racial
Randall G. Shelden is Professor of Criminal
Justice at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. He is the
author and co-author of several books on crime and criminal justice,
including Controlling the Dangerous Classes: a Critical Introduction
to the History of Criminal Justice, Criminal Justice in America:
a Critical View, Girls, Delinquency and Juvenile Justice and Youth
Gangs in American Society. His latest book is Delinquency
and Juvenile Justice in American Society, to be released this
summer. A more detailed version of this series, complete with
footnotes, is available on his web site: www.sheldensays.com.