Sheriff plans chain gangs for the first time in Mass.

Official hopes to teach work ethic, cooperation

May 26, 1999|By BOSTON GLOBE

Chain gangs of inmates, shackled ankle-to-ankle like on Old South highways, are coming to Massachusetts.

For the first time in the state, a county sheriff will lock teams of nonviolent convicts together in leg irons and send them out to clean streets, paint curbs and pick vegetables at farms.

Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson said the inmates, dressed in bright red jumpsuits and followed by two armed guards, will learn teamwork and gain valuable life experience.

"This is not punitive," Hodgson said. Inmates "have not been able to access an opportunity to develop a work ethic. This also gives them another benefit: learning teamwork. Five guys connected by a restraint means they have to learn to cooperate with each other."

Hodgson's plan to introduce chain gangs next month touched off outrage among civil liberties advocates, who said a practice that evokes images of Southern slavery and shame does not belong in Massachusetts.

"I didn't believe it at first," said John Roberts, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. "It is the kind of thing that brings up images of an era we like to think is gone. It is the kind of punishment that puts people in public humiliation. I hope this doesn't spread" to other houses of correction.

Massachusetts will join nine other states -- most in the South or West -- that use what corrections officials call "tandem work crews." Alabama was the first to resurrect chain gangs in 1995 after a 30-year nationwide hiatus.

Hodgson says the unpaid chain gangs will give work experience to inmates who until now were ineligible to leave the jail on traditional prerelease work crews because they have too much time left to serve. Participation is voluntary.

Hodgson said sex offenders and inmates with serious records would not be allowed on the crews of three to five inmates.

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