[Sidebar] July 1 - 8, 1999


Chain reaction

Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, vilified for bringing the chain gang to Massachusetts, is providing some of the rehabilitative opportunities that have been largely removed from American prisons

by Ian Donnis

[Tandem Work Crew] On a pleasantly warm recent Friday afternoon, a crew of shackled inmates from the Bristol County House of Correction edged their way up and down a beach in Swansea, Massachusetts, raking trash and brush into small piles before collecting them in plastic garbage bags. Less than a quarter-mile away, a few female sunbathers soaked in the sun, unperturbed by and virtually oblivious to the presence of Sheriff Thomas Hodgson's suddenly infamous chain gang.

The tranquil scene at the beach marked a sharp contrast to the storm of criticism that greeted Hodgson June 16, when he set a crew of 10 county inmates, each linked by chains at an ankle in two groups of five, to paint a fence around a county substance addiction center in New Bedford. On the face of it, chain gangs sound like a reactionary concept, and the sheriff's initiative -- which he dubbed tandem work crews -- quickly sparked condemnation by Amnesty International, some state legislators, and municipal officials in six southeastern Massachusetts communities.

To hear the critics tell it, Hodgson wants to transform his Bristol County bailiwick into an ugly patch of the American South, circa early-to-mid century, where racist jailers subjected predominantly black inmates to vitriol, mind-numbing toil and physical abuse. The problem is that in their reflexive response, opponents failed to distinguish between Hodgson's initiative and the chain gangs of the old South.

Fall River Mayor Edward M. Lambert Jr., for example, who helped to oust the chain gang from a ballfield renovation project in that community, says he's untroubled by the concept of inmate work crews, but objects to "the whole image of chain gangs and what they have represented in the past." At Amnesty International USA, Northeast regional director Joshua Rubenstein says, "We regard them [chain gangs] as degrading and humiliating. Our objection is to having these prisoners work in chains in public. We regard this as a violation of several international human rights conventions, to which the US is a signatory."

Sheriffs in Massachusetts have long used crews of inmates who are approaching their release to pick litter off highways and perform other forms of community service. By extending participation to mid-sentence inmates who are at a higher security classification, Hodgson expanded the candidate pool, but sparked controversy through the use of chains. Drawing an analogy with the use of restraints on suspects who are arrested or transported to court, the sheriff says the chains are necessary for security.

Critics see chain gangs as nothing more than public shaming, and there has been a national boomlet of efforts in recent years to humiliate a variety of offenders. But the fact is that for men who have lost their freedom for up to 21/2 years, it's not that big a deal to have a relatively piddling chain padlocked around one boot, if that means the chance to be out in the world on a summer day.

As Roger Rivera, a 35-year-old Attleboro man serving 23 months for assault and battery, put it while pausing from cleaning the beach in Swansea, "How can critics say it's degrading? They're not the ones out here with the chains on their feet. It's not degrading to me. I'd rather be out here doing something positive and constructive than being in a cell 23 hours a day. No one is forcing us to do this. We made the choice to do this."

Jim, another member of the chain gang, adds, "It's bettering ourselves, right now, for when we do get out. Out here, it's just a better way to do your time. When you're locked up, there's not that much to do."

Hodgson, 45, a former police commander in Ocean City, Maryland, who cites Ronald Reagan and George Bush as his political inspirations, isn't likely to be mistaken for a social liberal. As part of his self-described strategy for discouraging repeat visitors, he gave away the House of Correction's weight-lifting equipment, banned TVs from cells, and started charging a $3 copayment for inmate visits to the infirmary. But Hodgson also instituted programs in which inmates can build writing skills, attend religious retreats, gain qualifications for environmental remediation jobs, and tape record themselves while reading stories for their children.

And while you wouldn't know it from reading any of the voluminous press coverage about the chain gang, the Bristol County House of Correction is the only place in Massachusetts to currently offer Changing Lives Through Literature, a literary discussion program that has been credited with reducing recidivism among offenders.

[Tandem Work Crew] Articulate, telegenic and given to speaking like a practiced politician, Hodgson seems like an inevitable candidate for higher office. Indeed, some might reasonably suspect that the sheriff's chain gang initiative is planned as much for political mileage as any other reason. When he recently moved to Fall River -- and into the district of US Representative James McGovern -- talk was that Hodgson was going to run for the Worcester Democrat's seat. The sheriff, though, says he's told McGovern that he isn't going to pursue the post in next year's election.

The chain gang represents another extension of Hodgson's philosophy, which he broadcast while running for election last year (after being appointed by former Governor William F. Weld in 1997): that "we fail not only the society, but the inmates," by warehousing them and providing a prison atmosphere in which they are absolved of personal responsibility. A devotee of self-help books and motivational techniques, Hodgson believes that taxpayers can benefit when inmates are given opportunities to develop their sense of responsibility through community service. Prone to statements about such things as changing "the template of corrections," the sheriff has his mission statement taped to the outside door of his office.

The irony of the chain gang controversy is that the sheriff, cast as a human rights violator by Amnesty International and other critics, is providing at least some of the rehabilitative opportunities that have been largely removed from American prisons. Considering how misguided mandatory sentencing policies (and longer sentences for violent criminals) have swelled the number of incarcerated Americans to 1.8 million, from 744,000 in 1985, this is a real accomplishment.

Interestingly, a good part of Hodgson's prescription for managing his jurisdiction coincides with liberal calls for prison-based efforts to help rehabilitate inmates. For example, Jamie Suarez, criminal justice coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee in Cambridge, says, "If we don't give [inmates] some alternatives during the time they're imprisoned, we're going to guarantee that they return to prison. If the goal is to lessen crime and increase public safety, we should be concerned at least with minimal transition planning and job skills."

The concept of chain gangs as a rehabilitative tool, of course, strikes opponents as absurd. Hodgson's articulation of his philosophy could also be some kind of benign, Orwellian cover for the reactionary tendency of American prison management. The thing is, a fair number of the older inmates who have literally been around the block a few times are buying into the sheriff's approach.

Asked about Hodgson's methods for managing the House of Correction, Rivera says, "That's how you've got to make a change. There are a great deal of people in prison who aren't doing anything for themselves, so you have to force them to do a positive change. If you don't make the change in prison, you're only fooling yourself into thinking you're going to make the change out in society."

On the evening of the same day in mid-June when a small gaggle of reporters turned out to witness the debut of Hodgson's chain gang, six inmates sit around a table at the library in the Bristol County House, discussing "Tell the Women We're Going," a short story by Raymond Carver. The talk is animated, punctuated by varying expressions of recognition, as the participants dissect how an aimless night of drinking by two young men leads to their unexpected attack on two women.

Barry Andrade, a 39-year-old New Bedford man serving time for cocaine and heroin possession, rarely read books before participating in this group. Gaining the patience to read, he says, has helped him learn "how to escape the [mental] chaos, and how to do the right thing. It's real good. Once I escape the prison in my mind, the book will help keep me away from there. I know it will have a big effect."

[Tandem Work Crew] Andrade, whose heroin habit has resulted in repeat stays, under different administrations, at the Bristol County House of Correction in Dartmouth, endorses Hodgson's approach to prison management. "Definitely, we don't want to come back no more," he says. "He took all the fun out of it. The guy, I got to say, he's the strangest sheriff I've ever had a bout with," since he's acting as if he wants to put himself out of business.

Helping to deliver a heightened level of insight is the desired effect of the Changing Lives Through Literature program, which was created as an alternative sanction in 1991 by Robert P. Waxler, an English professor at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, and Robert Kane, a district court judge, in response to Kane's frustration with "turnstile justice." According to an early study by an independent researcher, 19 percent of 32 graduates of the program committed new crimes, compared to a recidivism rate of 45 percent for a comparable group of male offenders who did not take part in the literature program. Anecdotal accounts also indicate that new crimes by program graduates tend to be less serious property offenses, rather than crimes against people.

"That, in my mind, is a clear sign of a change in consciousness," says Waxler, who, with Jean Trounstine, co-edited Changing Lives Through Literature, a related short story anthology that was recently published by Notre Dame University Press. "In essence, part of what happens in the literature program is that if you're allowing people to discover something meaningful about themselves, you're allowing them to discover not only what makes them human, but what will allow them to become a citizen in the human community."

Bolstered by positive results, the Changing Lives program spread to some 10 district courts around Massachusetts, including those in Roxbury, Dorchester, Cambridge, Lynn, and Fitchburg, and also to Maine, Texas and Arizona. The Bristol County House became the first prison to host Changing Lives when it was introduced there last year. But while Kane is optimistic that the reading program will continue to be used in Massachusetts as a sentencing option in the future, that hasn't been possible for close to a year because of restructuring at the state Trial Court.

All this comes as a small, but potentially significant, series of efforts -- motivated by frustration with our prevailing approach to crime and punishment -- have started to challenge the incarceration of non-violent offenders who, according to the US Justice Department, compose some 60 percent of the inmates in state and federal prisons.

In Massachusetts, the Office of Community Corrections was created in 1996, under the state Trial Court, to seek alternatives to incarceration. Efforts to create New England's first statewide drug court are expected to continue in Rhode Island after the state Senate killed related legislation last week. As the New York Times reported last month, Arizona and at least 40 other states are providing prosecutors and judges with discretion to sentence drug-involved offenders to treatment, rather than prison, for what is seen as a more effective response and annual taxpayer savings of $20,000 per offender.

But despite an emerging consensus among liberals and conservatives about the need for more of these types of changes, policymaking remains largely stuck in the mode of the last 30 years, when the emphasis on crime and prison management swung decisively from rehabilitation to punishment.

Stephen Saloom, executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Coalition, a nonprofit group in Boston, says that in talking to elected officials at last year's Democratic state convention, "these people get it." But, he adds, "No one's willing to stick their neck out on criminal justice issues -- What if someone, in your next election, accuses you of being soft on crime?"

Saloom mentions the attack commercial, about a furloughed Massachusetts inmate who terrorized a Maryland couple, that George Bush exploited to devastating effect against Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential election. Never mind that similar political attacks, also based on anomalous examples from otherwise useful prison programs, could have been made against Bush and Reagan. As Saloom says, elected officials are "all just afraid of the Willie Horton thing. They haven't forgotten about that. It's like growing up in the Depression and still saving your pennies."

At this point, though, evidence of our generally short-sighted approach in responding to crime has become impossible to ignore. Despite the incarceration of scads of people on long sentences for possessing small amounts of drugs, for example, narcotic use has remained constant in the US. The consequence is that we imprison a higher percentage of our citizens (668 per 100,000, compared to 313 per 100,000 in 1985) than any country except for Russia, and the resulting prison building boom is sapping money from public education and other vital needs in California and other states.

"I think we're at a real crossroads right now," says Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington group that advocates on sentencing issues. "We now have the opportunity to do something really different. Crime has been going down for seven years, and there's a recognition of the trade-off in financial and human resources that's involved in building prisons while not investing in communities."

Even such conservatives as Princeton professor John DiIulio Jr. and US Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer now concede that mandatory sentencing policies for drug crimes are misguided and should be abolished. Meanwhile, conservatives are finding common cause with liberals in calling for increases in alternative and rehabilitative sentences for less serious offenders.

"I think we have to get very serious about making those distinctions," says Robert Moffit, director of domestic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "It's not the best use of our resources to incarcerate people who are non-violent."

Threatened with arrest on June 18 for trespassing on Fall River housing authority property, Hodgson reluctantly redeployed his chain gang from the ballfield renovation project to the beach clean-up in Swansea. Town officials in Dartmouth and Freetown later joined counterparts in Westport, Fairhaven, New Bedford and Fall River in opposing the chain gang, but Hodgson remains undeterred and maintains that public opinion remains firmly on his side.

Hodgson has not endeared himself to his municipal opponents with his headstrong approach. Lambert, the Fall River mayor, accused the sheriff of grandstanding by failing to provide advance notice that he was bringing the chain gang to town, despite the mayor's previous expression of opposition in a private conversation. Hodgson responds by saying his first responsibility is to county taxpayers, and that Lambert's eviction of the chain gang sends a message to the inmates "that it's too hard to do something good for somebody."

Amnesty's Rubenstein and other critics, including state Representative Benjamin Swan, D-Springfield, who introduced legislation to ban the use of chain gangs in Massachusetts, argue that prison inmates are not in a place to make voluntary choices. Adds Rubenstein, "What prisoner would not volunteer for a chain gang if there was a possibility he could witness the arrest of the sheriff? It seems to me the prisoners are being transformed from props in the sheriff's idea of justice to extras in this surreal political


Hodgson, though, says the only tangible reward inmates receive for participating in the chain gang is an evening snack and recreation to make up for the time spent working. If some of the remarks of the inmates suggest they may have received a little coaching, their comments seem heartfelt. There were no cameras around when Rivera, pausing from the chain gang work at the Swansea beach, dipped his face into the ocean with palpable pleasure.

And rather than being shamed or humiliated, the inmates on the chain gang are sometimes fielding accolades from appreciative residents. In an example of the kind of affirmative interaction with the public that convicts are unlikely to receive in prison, Swansea selectman Wayne Gray stopped by the beach to thank the inmates for working on the clean-up.

Reorienting our approach to crime and punishment probably wasn't on the mind of Anna Seddon, one of the women sunbathing a short distance away at the beach, as she watched with curiosity as the shackled men in bright orange jumpsuits arrived on a sheriff's department bus. Offering her reaction to the chain gang, Seddon saw not a violation of human rights, but something more closely resembling a form of rehabilitation. "It gets them out and they're doing something for the community," she says, "so they're giving something back."

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis[a]phx.com.

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