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CHAINED TO A NEW KIND OF JUSTICE

In the cool dawn, with the moon still stenciled high in the Alabama sky, 200 inmates line up inside the gates of Limestone Correctional Facility. Sleepily, they lug 10-gallon kegs of ice water. Wearing white uniforms in the gray light, they look like a brigade of pastry chefs, except for the black letters stamped across their backs: CHAIN GANG.

Inmate Freddy Gooden is led out first, in handcuffs, and he is ordered on his knees. The other inmates watch from a distance. Gooden, who is serving a 26-year-sentence for burglary and receiving stolen property, has already refused to work on the chain gang. He was punished by spending a day cuffed to a hitching rail in the June sun. An outburst earned him temporary residence in confinement.

This morning, all gathered to see whether he'll take his place on the chain gang or fight it.

In May, decades after the practice was abolished as inhumane, Alabama's Department of Corrections resurrected chained labor to punish repeat offenders. Limestone, the prison here in northern Alabama, has become the unlikely template for a new kind of justice, one that the Florida will follow come December when it begins its own version of chain gangs.

"Kneel down," Sgt. Mark Pelzer orders Gooden. The rest of the inmates watch as Gooden drops to his knees on the red clay. Gooden's handcuffs are removed. He is ordered to stand.

Wearing black leather gloves, the sergeant grips a truncheon. He spits a stream of brown tobacco juice into the rocks and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. He returns his eyes to Gooden.

"You know you're going to have to act right or I'll put this stick on you," he warns in a Dixie drawl.

This time, Gooden goes peacefully toward the waiting bus, which will deliver him to a day's labor on the chain gang.

A guard cradling a shotgun issues a warning to the other inmates who've watched the showdown.

"This bullet ain't got no kinda name on it," he yells.

Soon, four buses are pulling out of Limestone, past farmland and hay balers and a Baptist church with a marquee that urges, "Share Jesus Now." Billboards flicker by, advertising juicy cheeseburgers and new Chevrolets.

By noon, the chain gang has been at work on Interstate 65 for several hours, using hedge clippers to trim vines from a fence next to soy bean crops. Inmates are shackled together in groups of five. The labor itself could hardly be considered taxing, but the chains grow heavy, the sun furnaces down and the chiggers leave fiery welts.

Gooden, the rebellious inmate, works in silence. "I've committed a crime against society," he says. "I got no problem paying for it."

Then he bends down and lifts the slackened chain that drags from his ankle, raising it in his clenched fist. "This is what I'm against."

Watching the chain gang at work, it's impossible to wipe away the images of the Old South. To hurry an inmate along, a guard racks a round into the chamber of his shotgun. Beagles yelp from the sidelines. The clinking of chains make an unmistakable music.

"This is straight outta Hollywood, this redneck scene," says Gooden.

In Hollywood style, a red Lincoln Towne car pulls over on the side of I-65 one afternoon where the chain gang is working. A man in a starched shirt emerges from the velvety interior. Most of the inmates are too young to recognize him. In 1957, he and another young Alabama pastor, Martin Luther King, founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

Rev. Joseph E. Lowery is back in Alabama to fight what he considers an outrageous step backwards in time - chain gangs.

"Work, I got no problem with the state workin' you," Lowery tells a group of inmates. "But I think you should be treated as human beings. I met with the governor and I told him I was against this."

Nearly 70 percent of Alabama's prison population _ and its chain gang inmates _ are black, and for that reason, Lowery and many other black lawmakers have rallied together in opposition of shackled labor.

In May, Lowery was in a hotel room in Senegal when a story flashed on CNN about Alabama resurrecting the chain gangs. Lowery thought he had misheard the news report. "No, not in 1995, " he said. "And not in my state Alabamy."

A month later, Lowery is here to see the chain gangs with his own eyes.

The reverend picks his way across bramble, wiping his brow with a white handkerchief as he speaks with inmates who complain of brutality, heat, bugs and sandwiches with moldy bread. Some strip away their shirts to reveal insect bites, while others show where handcuffs around their ankles have chafed their skin.

Lowery asks several of the men to join hands, and they pray under the shade of a tree.

Next, he makes his way back to Limestone Correctional Institution to meet with Alabama's Department of Corrections Commissioner Ron Jones and other prison officials. They gather in the warden's office around a state-issue walnut conference table. Using a preacher's gift for storytelling and the caginess of a veteran civil rights activist, Lowry tries, as he says, to "prick the consciousness of Alabama."

But his is a small voice.

The prison officials have little sympathy for inmates who face the threat of heat stroke, snakes and chiggers.

"Red bugs is in the air here," says Charles "Red" Sanders, the deputy commissioner. "If they chopping cotton, they'd get red bugs. You just think back when you was a little boy, Reverend."

Lowery laughs politely and tells the white-haired deputy commissioner that he never chopped cotton.

The deputy leans back, knocking dirt from his cowboy boot. "There've been a lot of changes since you and me were little boys, Reverend."

In genteel sparring, punctuated by chuckles and knees slaps, the fundamental debate about chain gangs is played out by both sides.

Lowery makes his point. "The thing that frightens me about the gangs, on both the do-er and the do-ee, is it's a throwback to the days when prisons were dark dungeons, and all the wardens were crooked culprits," Lowery says. Pause. "Not gentlemen like you."

The deputy commissioner shakes his head. "You turn these people out, they come to your house, rape your wife, kill your wife, kill you," Sanders says. "You haven't been a victim yet."

Commissioner Jones gives his strong support for chain gangs. In Alabama, 33 percent of all inmates are repeat offenders. It's these inmates the Department of Corrections is hoping to punish, by augmenting their prison sentences with a 30-90 day stint on the chain gang. "Prison is not a deterrent for recidivists," Jones says.

In Alabama, 75 percent of those who return to prison for a second time are drug offenders _ either users or sellers. The waiting list for drug rehabilitation is long.

The state currently has about 400 inmates rotating on the chain gang. They include murderers and check forgers, convenience store robbers and car jackers. Inmates who are considered dangerous or at risk for escape are not included. There have been no escapes so far, according to the commissioner. There are roughly 35 standard road crews in Alabama _ unshackled _ with 20-30 escapes a year.

"By being in leg irons, I know they can't run off," the commissioner says. "Everyone wants to work inmates. That's part of the national fervor."

"National fervor," Lowry repeats, under his breath.

In the 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke, Paul Newman played a young convict named Luke who was sentenced to two years on a chain gang for twisting the caps off parking meters one drunken night.

If a remake of Cool Hand Luke were made in 1995 in Alabama, the set design would match the original _ guards with mirrored sunglasses, long stretches of hot road and plenty of snakes. But today, Luke might well be an 18-year-old who is serving 12 years for murder, like chain gang member Carlos Miller.

At the age of 15, Miller and a friend were stealing cars in Birmingham and running them across the state line. One night, a high-speed chase ensued with the police, and Miller's stolen car ran through a red light at an intersection, killing a man. When the chase ended, Miller shot at a police officer.

He is on his second month of chain gang duty. He trudges along as he picks up trash, moving in awkward unison with the other four inmates he's chained to. His cheeks are smooth but his eyes flash with hostility.

"How do you think I feel about it?" Miller says, indignant at both the chains and his 12-year-prison sentence, though he will probably only serve a fraction of his time because of overcrowding.

"I'll be 20 years old by the time I get out of prison," he says, angrily.

When asked how the family of the victim he killed might feel about him wearing chains, he shrugs, bored with the inquiry.

Lowery, the president of the SCLC, calls chains a "crucifixion," even when applied to unapologetic young killers such as Miller.

"Let's get at the causal factors _ hunger, poverty, meanness of spirit, housing, health care," Lowery says.

In addition the SCLC's opposition to the chain gangs, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center have recently filed class-action law suits against the State of Alabama on behalf of several chain gang inmates.

"Defendants' use of chain gangs constitutes an inhumane condition of confinement and offends the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society. It is repugnant to civilized standards and common decency and violates plaintiffs' dignity and humanity," one of the claims in a law suit states.

It is precisely this challenge to dignity that is so vital, according to Sen. Charlie Crist, R-St. Petersburg, who pushed through an amendment on chain gangs in the Legislature in May.

"If they're humiliated, I'm sorry," says Crist, mocking.

The senator doesn't think chain gangs will hurt Florida's image. "I'm more concerned about the image of people getting murdered in our state," Crist says. "I live in Florida. I see the crime statistics. Something is not working."

It was in 1919 that the original "Florida Chain Gang" was born, when shotgun squads and leg-irons were used on inmates who worked on public roads. According to historians, the chain gang grew out of a practice known as convict leasing.

In the late 1800s, Florida prisoners were leased to corporations and individuals to work in phosphate mines and pine forests. The convict lease system lasted until 1923, when a convict named Martin Tabert died in custody. Tabert had been arrested in 1921 in Lee County for riding on a train without a ticket. Unable to pay the $25 fine, he was committed to the custody of a Leon County sheriff. Tabert had actually been wired the money to pay his fine, but the sheriff returned it unclaimed. Tabert was leased to the Putnam Lumber Company, where he died of a beating.

The Tabert case brought the end of the convict lease system, but chain gangs continued. The large squads were called "bull gangs" and included 20-30 inmates who were individually shackled, three shotgun guards and a "walking boss" who was unarmed, according to Richard Kirkland, the Department of Corrections' Region I Director.

Many roadways were built by the bull gangs, such as Highway 2 in north Florida, which convicts dubbed Hogs and Hominy because of the cornfields and wild pigs in the area.

In 1945, according to the Department of Corrections, leg irons were eliminated. Sweat boxes were outlawed in 1958.

But road crews _ inmates working on public land under the watch of armed guards _ have continued.

The details of Florida's new chain gang are still being ironed out _ such as as how the chains will be applied, which corrections facilities will be involved, which offenders will get assigned and what sort of gain time they will earn. Unlike Alabama, Floria's chain gangs will include maximum security inmates.

Florida's Corrections Secretary Harry Singletary has gone along with the chain gang concept only grudgingly. "We need to create more jobs inside the fence," says Singletary, referring to work programs _ small industry, for example _ within the walls of Florida's correctional facilities. But Singletary will carry out the new law.

Sen. Crist thinks Florida should follow Alabama's example of shackling five men together, except he wants to put maximum-security inmates on the gangs.

Singletary thinks the inmates should be shackled individually, not together in groups of five, to get maximum productivity.

But Crist isn't necessarily interested in how many miles of hyacinth a Florida chain gang can clear away from a choked canal. He's thirsty for symbolism.

"I don't want them hidden on some back road where no one can see them."

In Limestone, sprawling antebellum houses line shady streets and tire swings hang from mossy oak trees over swimming holes. Barbecue shacks churn woodsmoke from chimneys and most women smile appreciatively when called "sugar." But signs of modernization are everywhere. Not 20 miles from the prison, a new Barnes and Noble Bookstore is under construction.

A chain gang guard at Limestone keeps bottled Evian water and reduced-calorie Twinkies on the dashboard next to his shotgun shells.

Commissioner Jones, who wears a gold pin shaped like handcuffs on his tie decorated with dolphins, refers to inmates who've served time on the chain gang as "graduates."

But others don't see reform and progress.

Out on the highway, Freddy Gooden, the inmate who initially refused to work on the chain gang, trudges through weeds, carrying his chains in one hand and a water keg in the other.

"Any man that breaks the laws of society needs to pay," Gooden says. "This is not a form of payment to society."

He pauses in the sun. "It's a machine gone wild."

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