The brutality of chain gangs

Even though I am aware of the utterly barbaric way that prisoners are treated in the US incarceration system, I keep coming across new things that can still shock me. Take this account by Winfred Rembert who was born in 1945 and died this past May, about his experience in a chain gang, where the prisoners do very hard labor in public areas, often alongside roads.

As a teen-ager, he got involved in the civil-rights movement and was arrested in the aftermath of a demonstration. He later broke out of jail, survived a near-lynching, and spent seven years in prison, where he was forced to labor on chain gangs.

He was released in 1974 and took up painting, depicting in stark ways his memories of the horrors he endured. Here he describes one example.

Morgan, Georgia, in 1971 was one of the worst places I’ve ever been. There ain’t a minute I can think of when the warden at Morgan was good. Not one minute. He didn’t give a damn what I knew or what I could contribute to his camp. He didn’t care that I had become a model prisoner. He didn’t care about the fact that I was trustworthy and could work without a guard over me. I told him that I could build roads and operate all kinds of equipment. He didn’t care nothing about that. He put me out there on hard labor.

It was at Morgan that I was first introduced to the sweatbox. They put you in this wooden box, where you can’t stand up and you can’t sit down. You’re in a crouch. You can’t see out. It’s dark except for daylight coming in through the cracks, and it’s real hot in there—sweating hot. They keep you in there anywhere from three to seven days. You use the bathroom on yourself. When they’re ready to let you out, they pull you out, strip you naked, and put you in a little space with a fence where they turn a water hose on you, like a fire hose, to clean you.

They didn’t have to have a reason to put you in the sweatbox. I mean, they would find some reason—like if you were in the ditch and you weren’t digging right, you weren’t using the shovel like they thought you should, or you talked back—but their reason wasn’t worth anything. They just wanted to be cruel to you. I had been through so much in my life before I went to the chain gang. Let me tell you, I could take a lot of cruelty and survive. But when I was there in the sweatbox I was afraid I was going to lose my mind. In the sweatbox, your mind is talking to you constantly. I’m thinking, Am I going to really lose it? Am I broken? I remember being scared the guards might come and throw some gas in there and kill me. I had never seen that happen, but there were always unexpected things happening, and I knew I was a guy that the administration didn’t care too much about. They didn’t like my thoughts.

The sweatbox was there for a reason, and I think that reason was to break you. They didn’t want you to talk back. They didn’t want you to say anything to other inmates that might cause them to be disobedient. So they would crack you upside the head and throw you in the sweatbox.

There was a little door in the front of the sweatbox. Twice a day, they would open that door and push in a cup of water and two slices of bread.

There is so much sadism on display here. There is the sadism of the individual guards and warden who would do such things to a fellow human being. And there is the institutional sadism of the US penal system that would allow such things to happen. Note that these things happened in the latter half of the twentieth century, within living memory of many of us, not in the distant past or during slavery.

Some of you may have seen the film 1967 Cool Hand Luke starring Paul Newman as a prisoner in a chain gang who runs afoul of the warden. It showed the sadism of the system but nowhere near the level that Rembert describes.

Here’s the trailer.


  1. says

    The mundaneness of the cruelty was the point, to let them know there was no appeal, no accountability, no humanity. In typical US v USSR cold war competitiveness, it was to prove the US could make worse prisons than Soviet gulags. And the far right in the US want a return to such brutality, Joe Arpaio deeming his gulag to be “soft punishment”.

    As for films or books, “Papillon” (1973) did not have chain gangs, but the brutality matches the descriptions. “Brubaker” (1980) also showed a lot of prison brutality in the southern US, like years of solitary confinement.

  2. consciousness razor says

    Note that these things happened in the latter half of the twentieth century, within living memory of many of us, not in the distant past or during slavery.

    When they wrote the thirteenth amendment, which abolished involuntary servitude (or so you thought), they literally carved out an exception for punishing criminals. That’s a rather big loophole, and it’s been in use ever since.

    As an aside, do keep in mind that we’re not just talking about illegal stuff like sex trafficking and wage theft and so forth, which also still happens (like other crimes) despite efforts to stop it, because this is about what was deliberately built into a core part of our legal system. With very little effort, we definitely could put an end to it, the moment we collectively decide we actually want to live in a less horrible society.

    So really, if we’re being completely honest with ourselves, “during slavery” (in the US) should refer to a period of time that continues to this day, not the antebellum era or something like that. Some just don’t want to talk about it that way, because … I don’t know. They don’t want to talk about it.


    Definitely going on a tangent here…. But I don’t exactly consider the Civil War to be the “distant past” either. It maybe sounds like a lot when you put it in years, but usually, not much changes about a society/culture in one year.

    So, let’s call 80 years a “lifetime” (not a “generation” which might be understood as the typical 20-30 year difference between parents and children). If you imagine a series of people who live until they’re 80, with one dying at the same time the next is born, you’ve got the picture. Okay? Well, then WWII was only about one lifetime ago, the Civil War was two, and the American Revolution was three. Those are not big numbers, and it should probably strike you as a little less surprising that so little has changed.

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