We are independent & ad-supported. We may earn a commission for purchases made through our links.

Advertiser Disclosure

Our website is an independent, advertising-supported platform. We provide our content free of charge to our readers, and to keep it that way, we rely on revenue generated through advertisements and affiliate partnerships. This means that when you click on certain links on our site and make a purchase, we may earn a commission. Learn more.

How We Make Money

We sustain our operations through affiliate commissions and advertising. If you click on an affiliate link and make a purchase, we may receive a commission from the merchant at no additional cost to you. We also display advertisements on our website, which help generate revenue to support our work and keep our content free for readers. Our editorial team operates independently from our advertising and affiliate partnerships to ensure that our content remains unbiased and focused on providing you with the best information and recommendations based on thorough research and honest evaluations. To remain transparent, we’ve provided a list of our current affiliate partners here.

What is a Chain Gang?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 16, 2024
Our promise to you
MyLawQuestions is dedicated to creating trustworthy, high-quality content that always prioritizes transparency, integrity, and inclusivity above all else. Our ensure that our content creation and review process includes rigorous fact-checking, evidence-based, and continual updates to ensure accuracy and reliability.

Our Promise to you

Founded in 2002, our company has been a trusted resource for readers seeking informative and engaging content. Our dedication to quality remains unwavering—and will never change. We follow a strict editorial policy, ensuring that our content is authored by highly qualified professionals and edited by subject matter experts. This guarantees that everything we publish is objective, accurate, and trustworthy.

Over the years, we've refined our approach to cover a wide range of topics, providing readers with reliable and practical advice to enhance their knowledge and skills. That's why millions of readers turn to us each year. Join us in celebrating the joy of learning, guided by standards you can trust.

Editorial Standards

At MyLawQuestions, we are committed to creating content that you can trust. Our editorial process is designed to ensure that every piece of content we publish is accurate, reliable, and informative.

Our team of experienced writers and editors follows a strict set of guidelines to ensure the highest quality content. We conduct thorough research, fact-check all information, and rely on credible sources to back up our claims. Our content is reviewed by subject matter experts to ensure accuracy and clarity.

We believe in transparency and maintain editorial independence from our advertisers. Our team does not receive direct compensation from advertisers, allowing us to create unbiased content that prioritizes your interests.

A chain gang is a group of convicted criminals on a labor detail, usually outside of their place of incarceration. Chain gangs were mainly used in the American South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. To prevent individual prisoners from escaping, the entire group was chained together by manacles around their ankles, wrists or necks. Chain gangs in America were mostly eliminated by the 1950s. Several sources link chain gangs with slavery practices of the South before the Civil War.

Inmate labor has been in use throughout history. The chain gang, however, is most often associated with the American South. Popular belief holds that chain gangs were intended as deterrents to crime, because potential lawbreakers would be “scared straight” by the sight of forced labor.

States such as Texas would hire out convicts to corporations or local governments, and the hiring fees or wages were paid to the state, not the convict. The convicts would work on privately owned work farms or on public works projects such as road construction. This process was called “convict leasing,” and it lasted well into the 20th century. After convict leasing was repealed by prison reform, states sometimes took over the work farms and continued the practice as state agencies.

Non-fiction works such as Michael King’s book “Texas Tough: The Rise of America's Prison Empire” demonstrate a link between chain gangs and slavery. After the Civil War, there was a backlash against freed blacks by many Southern whites. In some cases, black farm laborers were only allowed to work on Southern farms if they signed labor contracts. If they broke these contracts, they could be incarcerated and placed on chain gangs. Work farms were often located on former slave plantations, and convicts working on chain gangs were overwhelmingly African-American.

In the 1920s, a white convict named Robert Elliott Burns escaped from a Georgia chain gang and wrote a book about the brutal conditions he had endured there. The book was turned into a successful film, “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.” The book and movie provoked strong public sentiment against the chain gang system, and they are often credited with helping to eradicate the practice.

In the late 20th century, Southern states such as Alabama tried to reintroduce chain gangs. These plans were soon abandoned after public outcry and lawsuits that challenged the practice on the grounds of the Eighth Amendment, which outlaws “cruel and unusual punishment.” Convicts attempting manual labor while chained together can suffer lacerations, falls and injuries. Chain gangs were still used in many places around the world in the early 21st century, most often in developing countries.

The chain gang has appeared often in popular culture. Sam Cooke’s song “Chain Gang” was released in 1960 and has been covered by many other artists since then. The Pretenders released “Back on the Chain Gang” in 1982. Characters were sentenced to chain gangs in the films “O Brother Where Art Thou”, “Sullivan’s Travels” and “Blazing Saddles”, among others.

MyLawQuestions is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

MyLawQuestions, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.

MyLawQuestions, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.