Prison crew law unfettered by details

Published June 22, 1995|Updated Oct. 4, 2005

Charlie Crist's chain gang legislation got through unfettered by details _ like practicality, safety, history.

Details, details: Florida's Corrections Secretary Harry Singletary said Wednesday that the state never did really have chain gangs.

I heard this, and couldn't quite believe it. Could it really be that life is not the way it is in old prison movies?

Apparently, yes.

Florida has a new law _ the handiwork of state Sen. Charlie Crist, R-St. Petersburg _ requiring inmates to work on chain gangs. The inmates would "perform labor wearing leg irons in chain gang work groups."

Details, details. The language of the law is a little vague. The issue got rolling last week when Singletary said he would not carry out the law the way Crist expected. Inmates, under the watch of armed guards, would only be individually shackled at the ankles, he said, not chained together.

Crist started firing off letters to the governor, in which he threw around twenty-dollar phrases like "legislative intent." He said he might seek the advice of the attorney general. Or he might ask the Republicans to pass another law to get around Singletary.

The secretary was unimpressed.

When I asked him about this Wednesday, Singletary went even further.

First, he said what he wants to do is what Florida always did. For years, work crews of men wearing leg shackles, but not chained together, cleared the state's land and built hundreds of miles of roads.

The practice continued, Singletary said, until 1967, when a roadside barracks housing more than 50 men burned in Jay, in Santa Rosa County in North Florida. Thirty-eight of them died. Shackled at the ankles, they could not escape.

Despite this bitter history, Singletary said he was perfectly willing to reinstate the work crews. He even put in a budget request to hire 72 guards to oversee them this year.

But the Legislature turned him down, he said. Instead, it adopted Charlie Crist's very sexy amendment. I mean, how else could a politician get his name uttered in the same paragraph with Paul Newman's, over and over?

That's the trouble with details. They are never sexy. Singletary said chained crews simply aren't practical. They don't get much work done. "When one of them has to go to the bathroom, all of them have to go to the bathroom," he said, in one of the most elegant statements of public policy ever recorded.

I got off the phone with Singletary. My bubble had been utterly burst. I put in a call to Crist.

Another bubble burst: Charlie Crist wasn't exactly talking like a Republican. He said he didn't particularly care how productive the inmates were.

Didn't this, I wondered, make the chain gang idea sound like the very thing the Republicans abhor, a waste of the public's money?

Charlie Crist said he was most concerned about the inmates escaping. "When you're weighing those things together, . . . you err on the side of the safety of the public," he said.

How considerate of him.

Then I asked him: Why not go back to the old system as Singletary wants if _ except for the terrible fire _ it worked well?

"History is not relevant," Charlie Crist said.

From a man concerned so much about safety, that's dangerous talk. If Florida's school kids know that a leading light in politics thinks this way, they'll never crack another book again.

That surely is not what the Republicans want.

And that's surely not what Charlie Crist intends. He is a very, very smart man, and not just when it comes to reading the public mood. Talk about details, details. Chained individuals just won't have the same ring as chain gang in the campaign ads, will it?