Chain Gangs Newest Wedge Issue

Today, Alabama confines 19,838 prisoners. We house these inmates in 18 major inmate facilities, 2 work camps, and 11 work release centers. According to Department of Corrections Researcher, Thomas Gilkerson, the racial makeup of Alabama’s inmate population is 60/40 black to white for the male population and about the same ratio for the 1,100 female inmates. When asked if the Department of Corrections had an explanation for a 60 percent non-white incarceration rate given that population of the state is only 25 percent non-white, Mr. Gilkerson said that the department didn’t have any specific information based on research by their department. He felt that the disproportionally high rate of non-whites in Alabama prisons reflects the high rate of black on black crime in the state.

This relatively high number of non-white inmates in Alabama prisons is why civil rights organizations were especially concerned when Gov. James announced the state’s policy of using chain gangs. The policy worries Dr. Joseph Lowery, President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). In a recent interview, Dr. Lowery said he was attending a meeting of African leaders in Senegal when ‘chain gangs’ in Alabama made news around the world. The news dismayed him. When he returned to the United States, he felt that he had to do something to let Americans know the SCLC’s views on this issue.

He requested and received an audience with Gov. James to discuss the reinstitution of chain gangs in Alabama. He described his reception at the governor’s office on May 30, 1995 as cordial, however, he didn’t expect the governor to change the policy, because it is popular with many voters. Dr. Lowery added, that today, many Americans have a “caning” mentality when it comes to punishing criminals. Describing the policy as “disgraceful,” Dr. Lowery told the governor he would be remembered as Alabama’s ‘chain-gang-governor.’ He said Gov. James told him it was cost effective to employ chains to control the more difficult prisoners in work crews compared to other methods of control.

Characterizing his response to Gov. James’ discussion of cost considerations, Dr. Lowery said the state cannot balance austerity and cruelty. “It will harden hearts,” and build hostility and resentment among the prison population. Prisoners will become meaner, harder to control and less able to live in civil society once they are released.

In response to Gov. James’ ‘tough on crime’ statements in support of the chain gang policy, Dr. Lowery said he told the Governor the get-tough-policy is not working. He reminded the Governor that there are more people in American jails than any other time in the history of the nation. Afterward, he acknowledged that his visit with the Governor will not bring about a reversal of the policy, but he felt very strongly about the chain gangs and wanted to get the views of his organization on the table and become a part of the debate.

Gov. James’ press secretary, Donnie Claxton, described the meeting between the two men as warm and friendly. Mr. Claxton says that Gov. James and Dr. Lowery have a good, long-term relationship, spanning many years. He said Gov. James took note of Dr. Lowery’s concerns, then explained to him that he felt the policy was good for both the inmates and the citizens of Alabama.

Responding to allegations that chain gangs are cruel, Mr. Claxton says that Gov. James doesn’t think the policy is cruel. It allows the use of chains to restrain inmates so they can work while in state prisons. The chains attached to inmates legs are not heavy, he noted. He said that Gov. James feels strongly about the chain gang policy, it allows some prisoners, who otherwise would remain locked in their cells, to perform punitive work for the citizens of Alabama.

Summarizing the governor’s remarks to Dr. Lowery, Mr. Claxton said “inmates are safe, they are provided with food, water and medical care while they carry out their sentences doing work as opposed to sitting in a cell.” As far as being harder to control, he says there is no evidence of that being the case. He said that the governor is in close contact with prison commissioner, Ron Jones, and can respond quickly if there needs to be a change in the policy.

The chain gang issue in Alabama is fast becoming the political issue of the 1990s. Politicians can support or oppose this race-laden issue without overtly defining chain gangs as a race issue. Debate over this issue disappoints many James supporters, voters who viewed him as being beyond using race as a political issue. Gov. James’ chain gangs may replace the Confederate Battle Flag as the wedge issue that politicians use to divide Alabama voters by race for the next thirty years.

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Originally Published: 6 June 14 1995, Montgomery Advertiser
© Copyright – 1995 – Major W. Cox and Montgomery Advertiser.

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