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'There's a Better Answer Than Building More Jails'

July 16, 1988

I never heard of Fleming but his advocacy of a return to the chain gang is something I thought I would never hear. Horrible as was Paul Muni's depiction of the chain gang in the 1932 movie "I Am a Fugitive From the Chain Gang," it will be a novelty for this generation.

When we moved to College Park in 1919, Harvard Avenue was unpaved. I was 5 then and by the time I was 6, 100 or more black convicts with picks and shovels worked their way down the three blocks to our house in a solid line across the street, chains rattling, work chants keeping the beat.

It was summer, and hot. There were half a dozen tobacco-chewing guards, sitting in the shade, always in range, heavy shotguns across their laps. For such a boy it was an exciting experience. I played among those desperadoes without fear, certainly something not to be allowed today. There were trusties with no chains, mostly water boys, men with a single chain on one leg, and others with both legs chained. I can still hear the clank of those chains as the men walked.

When a new grammar school was built, a work force moved a whole hill to make a level playing field. The county work force was another 100 convicts and about a dozen huge dirt scoops pulled by two teams of fat, sleek mules. The paid drivers had great whips 8 or 10 feet long. When the actual scooping happened, an additional two teams were hitched on and the mules strained as the dirt mounted up in the giant "buckets."

I was older then, perhaps 10, and one driver who was fond of me and I of him, would let me ride with him on those great two-wheeled buckets while he talked to those mules.

But there is another, less sentimental side to the chain gang: the hot box, an instrument of torture just big enough to contain a man, to be left in the sun. After sundown, of course, they would check to see if the man were still alive.

I suppose Fleming advocates a return to the chain gang for others, not for him and me.


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