Tucson Weekly . Volume 12, Number 9 . May 11 - May 17, 1995

B Y  J E F F  S M I T H

WHAT WE HAVE here," said Strother Martin, "is a failure to communicate."

It became one of the standard punch-lines of the early 1970s, up there with "I can't believe I ate the whole thing."

What Mr. Martin--an actor, by the way, playing a redneck prison warden in the movie Cool Hand Luke--was trying to succeed at communicating, was his view that if Paul Newman (another actor, playing the aforementioned Luke) had paid sufficient attention to the moral instruction implicit in and available gratis from working on the prison chain gang, he'd have got his mind right and wouldn't at that moment be lying bleeding on the ground as a result of getting the snot beat out of him by the sadistic guards.

Martin's warden was very big on helping chain gang members get their minds right. In this his character was not materially different from that of Alabama Governor Fob (that's right, Fob) James today. Ol' Fob--I'll bet anybody a Moon Pie and an R.C. Cola he's a good ol' boy--recently exhumed this dead relic of retrograde penology, and put it back to work cutting weeds along Alabama's rustic backroads. The scene was described in press reports over all the national media. It does an out-of-town reporter's heart such good to be able to get his hooks into a story that begs for sarcasm and large laughs at the expense of backward-seeming hillbillies. We here in Arizona come in for so much of this snide treatment ourselves--and justifiably so--that we can't pass up any opportunity to point fingers at the outcome of too much first-cousin breeding outside our own borders.

Then, only a couple, three days later our own Redneck Peckerwood Gov. Fife Symington swears by God to make good on a campaign promise I had passed off as a weak attempt at humor, and says Arizona's coming out with its own chain gangs, post haste. Fife must be pissed. First he blows his chance at nipping New Hampshire for the first presidential primary, and now Alabama whups him in the chain gang race. Look for Fife to bring back the guillotine, before President-elect Chirac of France is seized with a fit of inspiration. Arizona simply has to find some leadership role other than infant mortality and adult illiteracy.

Anyway, Ol' Fob allowed as how tethering prisoners to one another and making them swing scythes in slow rhythm all day under the merciless southern sun would have a salutary effect on law and order in the State of Alabama, and a deterrent effect on wrong-minded Alabamans who might be contemplating careers in petty crime. Because it needs be noted that the trendy, fashionably retro 1995 version of the old chain gang is strictly for non-violent criminals of a recidivist bent. Given the historic trend toward cutting and running from chain gangs (see The Defiant Ones, Cool Hand Luke, Blazing Saddles, et al) you wouldn't want a lot of murderers and armed robbers out there with sharp implements lopping the heads off dandelions and getting silly notions.

Even the original Cool Hand Luke his ownself was in for nothing more serious that vandalism. He got drunk one sultry southern night and cut the heads off a row of parking meters with a pipe cutter. I was so taken with the imagery that I wrote a story for The Arizona Daily Star's Comment section on it. I had grown up in the mechanic's trade and recognized Luke's weapon as a Ridgid Pipe Cutter, the most popular brand on the market. Anyhow, Luke, who was nothing more than a mischievous boy with jackrabbit in his blood and a huge appetite for hard-boiled eggs, kept running away and never did get his mind right and wound up shot full of lead and rock-salt, and dead. On account of that's what happens if you don't take this chain gang foolishness seriously.

Which I suppose we should, since it's actually happening again, right down to the baying hound dogs and the shotgun guards with the reflecto-shades. Of course today's inmates are outraged about this sort of demeaning treatment. Why is it that even the criminals of the deep South, circa 1995, have evolved to a higher, more civilized sensibility, while politicians and penal officials seem forever trapped in the tarpit of some Neanderthal mentality? I know the nation has taken a sharp turn toward the Good Old/bad old Days, but where will the forces of reaction stop?

Will we next bear witness to the stocks and pillories in once-Colonial New England?

Next year will they be burning witches at the stake in Salem?

Staking men out over anthills in Arizona?

Don't tell me the very suggestion of these Draconian extremes does not bring a sadistic smile to the lips of many an angry white male in America today.

As the first crews of prisoners disembarked from trucks and buses and knelt to have the shackles locked around their ankles, chaining them together in five-man crews, and as the cameras whirled, pencils scribbled and lips muttered into mini-cassettes, the American Civil Liberties Union--ever vigilant guardian of our Bill of Rights--noted that under Alabama law this giant step backward is "stupid, but legal."

Indeed. Hell, it's not a whole lot different, in practical terms, than the accepted local practice of trucking short-term jail prisoners out to pick up litter along the highways, or do "yardwork" on roadway medians. It burns up energy that might otherwise turn to mischief, gets the lads out in the fresh air and helps keep our city clean. All noble goals.

The difference is, we don't chain them together, surround them with dogs, or keep a bead on them down the barrels of shotguns. And despite this seeming laxity, we have almost no trouble with them. They don't run off, they don't require getting the snot beat out of them like Luke (or running a pack of good bloodhounds to death, as happened in the movie) and they very rarely wind up shot to death in abandoned country churches, which was Luke's fate.

Of course the way we do it lacks a certain cinematic flair, that old Southern tradition, like white sheets and hemp rope, with prisoners in coveralls with "chain gang" stitched across the back. The idea, presumably, is that this participation in the time-honored tradition of humiliation, degradation and back-breaking stoop-labor in the broiling sun will work its deterrent effect better than leaving inmates indoors on their bunks in front of the telly, with nothing to do but watch soap operas or bugger one another.

I can't testify. Given the alternative forms of punishment, the chain gang may not be cruel, but it's damn sure unusual.

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May 11 - May 17, 1995

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