Although it didn't originate in the United States, the chain gang became an almost uniquely American feature of "justice" after the Civil War. When it was finally clear that The South didn't have slaves any more to do all the shit work, they created a "new
slavery" in the form of shackled-together black men (mostly), convicted of "crimes" and forced to "pay their debt to society" by working on farms, roadways, public lands, etc. It had been phased out by 1955, but in 1995 it was revived.
In 1999 filmmaker Xackery Irving made an award-winning documentary on the revival of the chain gang in America, both in Alabama and in Maricopa County, Arizona (home of the notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio) which features the first all-female chain gang.
This is a chilling look at the revival of the chain gang system of punishment and retribution -- there's no other way to describe it, since it certainly doesn't qualify as rehabilitation of any kind.
We get to know a few prisoners and guards during the course of the film. The guards seem to think that the prisoners under their supervision are being "rehabilitated", and even the prisoners agree in general, saying that they don't want to come back to prison when they get out, that they are "cured". But as we learn at the end of the film, a depressingly high number of the inmates, who were followed up by the filmmakers after filming stopped, were back in the system in one way or another. Or dead.
This is a depressing look at a slice of the prison system in this country, and it's not a pretty sight. There's no violence on screen, but it is talked about a lot, both by the inmates and the guards, and the guards seem perfectly willing to kill a prisoner who tries to walk away. It's not clearly stated, but a couple of the guards seem a little too eager to do it if they get the chance.
Not an uplifting film, but one that is definitely worth watching.
- American Chain Gang on the IMDB.
- American Chain Gang available on Netflix
- Chaingang Pictures, the company that produced American Chain Gang
- My 12-11-14 tribute to Sam Cooke singing "Chain Gang" and featuring footage from this film.