Late Twentieth-Century and Contemporary Afterlives

Georgia State Prison Opening
The Red and Black, 1974 March 28
Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) 2017 annual report

The decline of the Georgia chain gang began in the late 1930s after federal investigations and unfavorable media coverage increased awareness of road camps and their deplorable conditions. In 1938, Governor E. D. Rivers banned the term “chain gang” in preference for the more palatable “public works camp” and removed the shackles and chains that bound prisoners together. Yet road gangs continued to operate until Governor Ellis Arnall finally abolished the chain gang in 1943.

Traces of the convict lease system remain as new forms of convict labor—and controversy over its use—continue in penitentiaries today. In 1995 Alabama reinstituted the chain gang. Since then Texas, Mississippi, Indiana, Nebraska, Florida, and Maine have followed suit, and sheriffs in many of these states have even reinstituted the wearing of convict stripes. Today, prisoners across the United States still perform manual labor for the state—collecting trash, digging ditches, and cleaning streets, roadways, and city buildings.

In recent years the system of convict leasing has also made a comeback. Private businesses in more than half of U.S. states are now able to hire out inmate labor. Prisoners have been paid little to nothing for sewing clothing, harvesting food, and packaging coffee for companies like Wal-Mart, Victoria’s Secret, McDonald’s, and Starbucks.