Chain gangs and prison farms Productive inmates: Keeping prisoners active a real plus -- but not in shackles.

February 18, 1997

PUTTING prisoners to work should be a fundamental objective of prison officials. The benefits are manifold. But not if this entails shackling the prisoners together in a scene straight out of slavery days.

And yet that is what muddled-thinking commissioners in Queen Anne's County intend under the guise of making jailed inmates productive. Not only do the commissioners want inmates to pick up trash along highways and embark on other work details, but they insist prisoners do so while chained together.

That is abhorrent to most Marylanders. It is the equivalent of wearing a scarlet letter so everyone in town can shun you. Yes, it is guaranteed to humiliate the inmates, but it won't serve as a deterrent and it surely is an inefficient way to put these individuals to work.

Will sheriff's deputies carry shotguns to supervise the chain gangs? What a delightful sight for all the vacationers bound for Ocean City to view as they pass by. It will firmly ingrain in their minds the backward and intolerant attitude of folks in that part of the Eastern Shore.

We urge commissioners to reconsider their ludicrous decision. Requiring mandatory work details is a sensible suggestion. Chains only mock the notion that real work is being accomplished. And it makes Queen Anne's County look like a community intent on resurrecting repugnant vestiges of the Old South.

Better that the commissioners follow the lead of state prison officials, who want to put some of their inmates to work, but not with shackles on their ankles. They plan to have prisoners grow fruits and vegetables on a three-acre plot at the Hagerstown penal complex. Eventually, seven state prisons will get fresh produce from this enterprise.

That is a positive work assignment for inmates. It saves the state taxpayers money by reducing outside food purchases. It could become a sizable activity for inmates, reducing some of the tension in prison caused by idleness.

And it can be done without dredging up bitter memories of a past best forgotten.

Pub Date: 2/18/97

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