Chain gang issue debated Queen Anne's law reflects national trend

February 15, 1997|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

CENTREVILLE -- A law passed to make chain gangs mandatory for prisoners in Queen Anne's County has pushed this quiet, rural Eastern Shore county into a debate that extends far beyond its neatly tended small towns and sprawling discount outlets.

The new law appears to herald the first use of chain gangs in state history. Supporters say it also has made Queen Anne's County part of a growing national trend favoring cheaper and tougher prisons in response to public sentiment that criminals deserve harsh punishment instead of jails with amenities.

Opponents, including activists who have fought against chain gangs in other states, say Queen Anne's County is moving backward, reviving an outdated practice that is cruel, inefficient and evocative of slavery. There is no evidence that chain gangs deter criminals, critics say -- but plenty of evidence they bring political benefits for some elected officials.

"I believe someone convicted of a crime in Queen Anne's County has a debt to repay," says Mike Zimmer, the first-term county commissioner who proposed the law approved Tuesday by the county board.

"That debt does not consist of sitting in the detention center all day watching cable TV. The citizens of Queen Anne's County will no longer tolerate convicted criminals watching TV and playing cards all day."

Zimmer says his proposal was motivated by his long-standing interest in prison reform, his deep conviction that criminals should be held accountable, and by money. The county detention center in Centreville is the county's sec-

ond-largest expense, after schools, he says. Last year the county spent $1.7 million on the jail.

He has received several calls opposing chain gangs and about 25 calls in support of them, he says.

The county attorney, Patrick E. Thompson, says he is researching the new law to see if it is feasible.

Zimmer says the county will try to implement it by April 1 "unless all of my constituents call and say it's stupid -- and I don't think that's going to happen."

If his constituents are not unhappy, plenty of others are.

"We're absolutely opposed to chain gangs -- they serve no useful purpose," says Jenni Gainsborough of the National Prison Project, an advocacy group within the American Civil Liberties Union. "They have a long and dishonorable history in the South. It was very close to slavery. What next? Public flogging? Public hangings?"

Both supporters and opponents of chain gangs recognize the powerful image they carry, although they interpret it differently. Zimmer and other proponents say that the message is clear: Crime is a serious offense.

"Chain gangs will show children they are accountable for their actions," says Zimmer. Seeing people -- Queen Anne's law applies to men and women -- chained together doing road work will be a warning to would-be offenders, he says.

But opponents say that while the image of chained convicts is indeed a strong one, it is not only distasteful but can do real harm -- and has no deterrent effect.

"There's nothing good about it," says Gainsborough. "It increases the prisoner's sense of anger and frustration."

Gainsborough and national associations such as the American Corrections Association, which studies crime and prison issues, say there is no evidence that making punishment harsher causes the crime rate to drop.

Groups such as the corrections association, Amnesty International and the Southern Poverty Law Center have all taken positions opposing chain gangs.

Nonetheless, they are becoming popular again. Several states, including Arizona, Illinois, Florida, Wisconsin, Oregon and Washington, have begun using chain gangs or passed laws allowing them.

However, Alabama, which gained notoriety recently for reinstituting chain gangs, has stopped using them -- a key part of the agreement that settled a lawsuit brought against the state by the Poverty Law Center, which argued that chain gangs constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

Although chain gangs were widely used in the South after the Civil War and until the mid-1950s, there is no historical evidence they were ever used in Maryland.

Neither the Maryland Historical Society nor the Maryland State Archives could find references to chain gangs in state historical documents. Wallace Shugg, who has written a history of the Maryland State Penitentiary, says Maryland never used them.

"Maryland is a border state and has never shared the attributes of the Deep South 100 percent," he says. "Things are different down there. They take a more punitive attitude."

Pub Date: 2/15/97

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