Friday, June 10, 2011

Chain Gangs and how they relate to Foccault's Discipline and Punish

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CHAIN GANGS


“The use of prisoners in public works, cleaning city streets or repairing the highways, was practiced in Austria, Switzerland and certain (areas) of the United States, such as Pennsylvania. These convicts,distinguished by their infamous dress and shaven heads, were brought before the public,” (Foucault p.8).


In the above statement Foucault is describing a form of public spectacle that prison systems used called chain gangs. The name “chain gang”, refers to prisoners being chained together at the legs to reduce the chance of escaping. The convicts had to wear the chains at all times even while they were at work or asleep (Wilson, p.70) The chains could only be removed with a cold chisel upon the prisoner’s release from the gang.


The inmates were displayed in public, forced to work in harsh environments, as a form of humiliation. Inmates were controlled by whips and other cruel forms of retribution. Prisoner’s were “encumbered with iron collars and chains to which bomb shells were attached , to be dragged along while they performed their degrading service,” (Foucault p. 8)


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Chain gangs involve lining prisoner’s up in a row and chaining them together. This allows the prison guards to have complete control and discipline over the prisoners. The prisoners are not next to each other, so they can not look at each other. They are always under surveillance by the guards and by lining them up the guards have limited their line of sight to looking straight ahead. They were “under the eyes of keepers armed with swords, blunder busses and other weapons of destruction,” (Foucault p.8).


The film “Cool Hand Luke”, illustrates what life is like on a chain gang. The main character, Paul Newman, resists authority by escaping the prison camp countless times.


The movie opens with a scene of prisoners cutting weeds with blades on the side of a highway. This shows what life is like on a chain gang in a Southern prison.


The prisoners are under total control by the watchful eyes of the guards. The guards are watching over them with guns and are prepared to take action if the prisoners get out of hand. The prisoners must get permission from the guards before they take their shirts off even though they are in intense heat. This is a form of social control, the guard’s control the prisoner’s every move and they are always being watched and scrutinized.


When Paul Newman first arrives at the prison camp, he is lined up along with the other new prisoners in front of the captain. The captain does not tell the new prisoner’s the rules, but instead says, “You will learn the rules. It’s all up to you.”


This is the first mechanism of control the captain uses, he creates uncertainty in them by saying that you’ll figure out the rules as you go along. Thus, the prisoner’s will not do anything wrong because they are uncertain of what they can do.


This operates in the same way as the panopticon does. “The efficiency of power, its constraining force have, in a sense, passed over to the other side-to the side of its surface of application, (Foucault, p.0). The rules are not said, but the burden of learning the rules is passed on to the new prisoners, thus the prisoners will act out in response to this statement.


In another scene in the movie the floor walker, Carl, tells the new prisoners their day. The first bell will ring at 8 a.m. signaling the start of their day. The day of the prisoners revolves around working; their day is focused around the clock. Their day is much like that of the young prisoners in Paris. “At the first drum-roll, the prisoners must rise and dress in silence, as the supervisor opens the cell doors, (Foucault, p.6). The floor walker says in the movie that you cannot sit in the bed with dirty pants on, this shows that the prisoners outside appearance is to be clean because this is what the guards can visibly see.


The guards who were in charge of the chain gangs were very brutal and used cruel forms of punishment on the prisoners. They reprimanded the prisoner’s for not doing enough work and not keeping up with the pace they set. The punishment included binding in cuffs and shackles, flogging, confinement in sweat boxes and clubbing. Sweat boxes are small coffin-like cells that had just enough room for a man to stand up. The cells were put in the hot sun, with only a small hole to let in air (Wilson, p.74). Sweat boxes were one of the worst forms of prison tortures.


In the movie, “Cool Hand Luke”, Paul Newman is put into one of these boxes after his mother dies because the guards do not want him to escape to attend his mother’s funeral. The box is very small and he is only given a bucket in which to go the bathroom in. This is one of the cruelest forms of punishment they can enforce on a prisoner and they do this to show the complete control they have over him.


Paul Newman escapes the chain gang numerous times. After the first time of escaping and getting captured the Captain says to him, “What we got here is a failure to communicate. Some men you just can’t reach.”


The captain is saying that he needs more disciplinary action. This signifies how the prison is a place where the prisoners are punished in order to produce them into useful citizens in society. The prison does this through discipline and the aim is to transform that discipline into self-discipline. Paul Newman is not ready to be a useful citizen in society and thus needs more discipline.


In the end Paul Newman escapes again and is caught in a Church. The guards come for him this time and he is not captured, but killed with a bullet through his throat.


The ending scene is the prisoners working on the chain gang reminiscing about Paul Newman. The camera pulls back to his friend, Dragline, focusing in on his leg chains, chopping weeds on the highway.


Paul Newman never escaped the confines of the chain gang alive, but in a way he challenged the system and did not let it dictate his life.


In chain gangs prisoners were forced to work in the hot sun and would frequently die from sunstrokes. The guards killed them by working them to death, thus applying the “hands off” approach to discipline. They did not have to lay their hands on the prisoner’s body in order to enforce this form of cruel punishment.


The first chain gangs began in England and the northern part of the United States during the eighteenth century. Chain gangs were legal in every state in the U.S. at that time, but the South was the main area that used them. This was because of the fact that after the Civil War the south had a major labor shortage and due to an increase escalation in crime they started leasing out convicts to perform labor (Wilson, 68). The most common workers on the chain gang were county inmates who worked on the roads. This was degrading and humiliating for the inmates and put them in the public where they were made into a spectacle.


The use of chain gangs back in the 18th century was mostly for economic gain (Reynolds, 181). Rehabilitation, during those times was not a concern to the public as it is now. The concern then was not to reform the prisoner’s into useful citizens, but to use them to perform cheap, degrading labor.


Contrary to Foucault’s claim, chain gangs continued to go on well into the 0th century. “This (chain gang’s) practice was abolished practically everywhere at the end of the eighteenth or the beginning of the nineteenth century (Foucault, p.8).


In 1 a big scandal came to light in Alabama when a disabled World War veteran was severely beaten by a heavy leather whip on the Ardmore prison chain gang (Wilson, p.7). His crime was failure not to work hard enough. This is proof that Foucault’s statement in his book is false; chain gangs were still around and thriving in America during the 100’s.


A reason why chain gangs were still active in America during this time could be due to the fact that it deterred crime. Being chained at the foot and exhibited in public is degrading to prisoners, but is a symbol to the public that if they “do the crime, they will pay the price,” like the prisoners. Prisons became focused more on the act of discipline, to instill in the criminals useful social qualities, so that upon there release they would become a contributing member in society.


During the Great Depression chain gangs began to die out. Many states began to pass laws to stop convict labor because it took work away from the public (Wilson, p.7). Congress then began to pass laws which dropped convict labor from eighty-five percent in 100 to forty-four percent in 140 (Ingley, p.8) Thus, the famous chain gang’s began to die out.


The penal system then began to change; punishment became a form of enlightenment. Foucault saw an alternative reason for the development, namely that the feudal system was irregular and inefficient and that a more rational and effective system was required. The unnecessary use of power under the monarchical regime provided poor results on its subjects - far simpler and more cost-effective is to discipline prisoners and make them more manageable by subjecting them to the routine of the institution. “Punishment then will become the most hidden part of the penal process” (Foucault, p.). The aim of the prison system became to reform the prison’s, to educate them so that they could be productive citizens in society.


Punishment became less of a symbolic nature during this time. The prison became centered on the efficient management of each individual prisoner. The prison’s architecture following strict patterns of enclosure, limiting the expense of each prisoner. This concept of the institution is refined in Bentham`s Panopticon - in which the prisoner is unable to tell whether or not he is being surveyed, thereby empowering the warder of the prison and leaving the prisoner impotent and unable to prevent his constant assessment and judgment.


The prisoner who knew he was being watched while lined up in a chain gang, now was uncertain at all times. “Discipline is thus transformed into self-discipline”(Krips).


Today many Americans believe that prisons are not harsh enough to deter crime, (Reynolds, p.18). People are staying in prisons longer because of longer sentences and more parole restrictions, causing the population of prisons to quickly grow. Recently in America there has been a move for the introduction of punishments of a more symbolic nature as a result of a fear that the rationalized institutions do not provide enough of a deterrent. It has been four decades since there have been chain-gangs in the United States, but a development in Alabama has revealed much about the attitude of American people towards crime and the way it should be dealt with.


Alabama reintroduced chain gangs in May of 15; they shackled the prisoner’s together much like the chain gangs of the 18th and 1th century. For twelve hours a day prisoner’s in Alabama slashed at weeds, while being chained together.


Chain gangs were brought back to Alabama for about a year. They were forced to end them when a prisoner was shot to death by a corrections officer when he attacked a fellow chain gang member with a bush ax.


In Arizona there are female prisoners from the Arizona State Prison at Perryville that work on chain gangs (The Arizona Republic, June 00). The women arrive each morning in white buses dressed in bright orange jumpsuits to pick up the litter on the highways. This is a program done by the institution in which the female inmates perform the tasks and get paid 50 cents in hour. The female workers say that this gives them a sense of pride to be helping out their county. This form of prison work is no where near as harsh as the earlier structures, but still has aspects of the traditional chain gang in it.


People today still feel that chain gangs should be used to deter crime. Maybe the reason is that it is a return to a far more visible and symbolic form of punishment. Maybe it’s because people feel that there should be far more condemnation of the prisoner - trapped within the confines of his institution the prisoner is safe from the critical eyes of the society he has sinned against.


Bibliography


1) Foucault, Michael. “Discipline and punish”, Random House, NY. 17.


) Wilson, Walter. “Forced Labor in the United States”, Ams Press Ins, NY. 171.


) Reynolds, Marylee N. “Back on the Chain Gang.” Corrections Today. (April 16) 180-184.


4) Ingley, Gwen Smith. “Inmate Labor Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.” Corrections Today. (February 16) 8-1.


5) http//www.themilitant.com/16/607/607_17.html


6) Movie analyzed “Cool Hand Luke”


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