Prisons Tracks: “Chain Gang”

As the second song in our series Prison Tracks, Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang” is decidedly more upbeat than “Folsom Prison Blues.” With its R&B rhythms and tight harmonies, the song reached #2 in the US pop charts and has come to be a standard in the American pop songbook. According to legend, Cooke was inspired to write the song after he and his brother, Charles, saw an actual chain gang working along a highway and stopped to give them several cartons of cigarettes.

While the song is an idealized look at the men who worked on those gangs and the hopes that got them through, the reality of penal labor has a more sordid history.

Penal Transportation: The Chain Gang’s Predecessor

In the early days of colonial expansion, Great Brittan began to send its prisoners to far-away lands where they where they were required to work on government projects such as road construction, building works, and mining. These penal colonies were a boon for a small nation like Great Brittan, both because they freed up space on the mainland that would otherwise be dedicated to jails and because it provided the colonial power with free labor to complete projects throughout its ever-expanding empire.

North America was the primary penal destination between 1620 and the American Revolution of 1776, but the revolution, combined with fears that prisoners sent to Canada might become hostile to British forces because of their proximity to the United States, forced authorities to look elsewhere. In 1787, the “First Fleet” left England for Australia, arriving in 1788, and the penal colony established at Port Jackson (modern Sydney) was to become the place of entry for more transported prisoners than any other colony.

Rise of the Chain Gang

As the colonial age came to a close, penal transportation became impractical and lawmakers began to look for an alternative. Since the colonies had set a precedent for making prison time productive to the state, it was assumed that the practice would continue wherever the prisoners landed. With the Penal Servitude Act of 1953, penal transportation ended and prisoners were set to work on domestic issues. Facing problems of controlling prisoners out in the open, it wasn’t long before the idea of chaining prisoners together was proposed and the chain gang was born.

Up until this point, the story of chain gangs is one of hardship, but it wasn’t until after the passage of the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery, that the practice was applied for more nefarious purposes. In some southern states, newly-freed African Americans were frequently arrested on flimsy or even fabricated pretenses and set to work on chain gangs. These gangs could then be leased by private citizens, which provided revenue to the state and cheap labor to the citizen.

The practice of convict leasing became and effective way to continue de facto slavery, while complying with new laws, and continued into the twentieth century before growing opposition began to take hold. The combined forces of human rights advocates, comprehensive legislative reform, and new ideas about incarceration, however, ensured that the practice was more or less abandoned by the mid-1920s, and it wasn’t long before the chain gangs that had supported the system followed suit.

Penal Labor Today

Because of the associations with mistreatment, efforts to revive the chain gang have been met with mixed responses, but that doesn’t mean correctional institutions have let their inmates sit idle. Many have found more humane ways to make productive use of penal labor. The classic example has become license plate manufacture, but creative administrators have found a myriad of ways to provide value through their inmates. In keeping the move toward rehabilitation, some facilities have instituted work programs that contribute to the prison’s bottom line, while teaching the prisoners a trade; others have reinstituted work on civil project but sweeten the pot by allowing prisoners to earn greater privileges by volunteering to work. Whatever the program, though, today’s prison work is a far cry from its historical predecessor.

See Prison Tracks: “Folsom Prison Blues”