County's chain-gang law assailed Queen Anne's action criticized as cruel, reminiscent of slavery

March 19, 1997|By Dail Willis NNTC | Dail Willis NNTC,SUN STAFF

CENTREVILLE -- "I have been an educator in this county for 44 years," Vivian Goldsboro said, her voice thick with sadness. "I never thought that we would chain people to make them behave. I never thought I would see this."

Goldsboro, a retired teacher, was one of nearly 25 people who voiced opposition yesterday to a new law requiring inmates of the Queen Anne's County jail to work on chain gangs. About 60 opponents of the plan -- which was passed 3-0 by the county commission Feb. 11 -- crowded yesterday's weekly commission meeting.

The chain-gang proposal, put forward by Commissioner Mike Zimmer and supported by Commissioners George O'Donnell and Ted Moeller, has ignited a debate that has spread beyond the county to include regional and national representatives of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, area citizens' groups, black churches and former inmates.

Zimmer did not publicly defend his plan yesterday, saying that the meeting had been designated for public comment. The commission took no action, promising only to consider what it heard.

But Zimmer indicated before the meeting that he intends to stick by the proposal to chain inmates.

"The shackles are going forth April 1," he said. He dismissed the criticism, saying, "I find it ironic that there are people who care more about criminals' rights than they do about their neighbors."

Although no one at yesterday's meeting spoke in favor of the plan, Zimmer said that he has received a great deal of support from constituents.

He remained steadfast in his contention that chain gangs in Queen Anne's County will send a message to criminals and would-be criminals alike: Don't break the law here.

"I want to make it so hard to commit a crime in Queen Anne's County that they go somewhere else and leave my citizens alone," he said.

April 1 is the target date for implementing the chain gangs, but it may not happen that soon.

LaMonte Cooke, the county prison warden who is acting as county administrator, is investigating options for securing inmates working outside prison walls, including use of "stun belts."

The belts have been used elsewhere for maximum-security prisoners. A guard holds a device that can activate the belt, sending an electrical shock to the inmate.

Opponents of the commission's decision on chain gangs have also denounced the belts, known as "stingers."

Both, they say, would move Queen Anne's County backward into a dishonored past.

"We feel that chaining is an evil, cruel device used to control humans, whether they be criminals serving time or slaves," said Bishop Charles Cephas, leader of Ministers and Citizens for Change, an area activist group represented at yesterday's meeting.

Although some speakers said the issue touched all races, most denounced it as racist because they said many jail inmates are black and putting them in chains evokes memories of slavery. A woman who did not identify herself held up a picture of African slaves arriving in America two centuries ago.

"How do you think putting a chain on someone will stop crime?" she asked angrily. She added a warning: "There comes a reckoning day for all of us" -- a remark that drew a chorus of supportive murmurs and "amens" from the room.

County resident Joe Gannon said he was particularly incensed by a remark attributed to Zimmer in local newspapers. Responding to the announcement by Cephas and others that their protest would include a fast, Zimmer said that maybe he would fast, too, because he needed to lose 30 pounds.

"Commissioner Zimmer owes these people an apology," Gannon said. "That [fasting] is a special, spiritual thing."

Several people stood and applauded his sentiments.

Opponents, including local NAACP President James Holley, questioned the wisdom of such harsh punishment for county jail inmates, most of whom have received sentences of two years or less.

Zimmer has defended his reasoning, saying that minor offenders are an appropriate target.

"They're exactly the ones I want," he said before yesterday's meeting.

"If anyone is rehabilitatable, it's people who are just starting their life of crime."

Pub Date: 3/19/97

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