Xackery Irving’s documentary “American Chain Gang” focuses on a pair of modern day correctional facilities that use an old-fashioned approach to punishing prisoners. In Alabama, male prisoners do field work wearing leg manacles (albeit not connected to each other). In Arizona, a publicity hog sheriff puts female inmates on the first all-woman chain gang and parades them about for media consumption.
Nobody is fooled by the idea of the chain gang as a crime deterrent. Prison guards acknowledge the set-up is being done to satisfy a public that is frustrated by rising crime. Inmates question how they are going to be rehabilitated for their eventual return to society by being treated like animals. Civil libertarians chime in that no civilized democracy resorts to this type of penology stunt.
“American Chain Gang” is grimly depressing, not only in showing how the chain gang concept is a blatant failure, but also by presenting some of the dumbest people ever put on camera. Both sides of the law seem to share a lack of brain cells – whether it is an inmate advocating the Aryan Nation cause or a correctional officer who enjoys watching the chained prisoners because it is (in his estimation) a new adventure every day. Needless to say, the people in this film will never be found guilty of stealing subscriptions to The New Republic or National Review.