Austin v. James

Popular Name: 
Chain Gang & Hitching Post Case
Case Number: 
Court where filed: 
USDC Middle District of Alabama
Date Filed: 
Chain gangs claim settled. Won on hitching post claim.
Michael Austin, class of Alabama prison inmates
Alabama Gov. Fob James, Alabama Corrections Commissioner Michael Haley, other correctional officials
Case Related Items 

Ending unconstitutional prison practices
Shackled at the ankles, men in chains cut grass, trimmed bushes, and picked up trash along Alabama highways. Five to a squad, the men shuffled along, pulling and chafing each other's legs while breaking rocks and swinging blades, sometimes drawing blood. The prisoners remained joined at the ankles even during their most private moments.

Tempers flared. Inmates complained. Then one man was shot and killed by a guard after a fight with another prisoner to whom he was chained. Faced with the death of one inmate, mounting reports of injuries, fights and other security concerns, the Department of Corrections agreed to the Center's demand to permanently ban chain gangs, thereby settling that portion of the lawsuit.

During the course of the litigation, the Center had discovered other disturbing prison practices. For men who disrupted the work squads or refused to be chained to four other men, there was the equally barbaric practice of handcuffing the disruptors to a device known as the hitching post, a stationary metal rail. While chained to the post, the inmate's hands were raised and he remained in that position in the Alabama heat, usually for several hours, and sometimes without water or bathroom breaks.

The hitching post claim went to trial in 1996 and the Federal Court ruled that the manner in which the hitching post was used in Alabama, the only state in the nation to do so, violated the 8th Amendment's ban on "cruel and unusual punishment."

Larry Hope, one of the plaintiffs in the case, filed a separate lawsuit for damages the same year. In 2002, the Center represented Mr. Hope in his appeal to the United States Supreme Court. In Hope v. Pelzer, the Supreme Court ruled that the hitching post was unconstitutional and that an inmate who suffered injuries while chained to the post had the right to sue for damages.



Roy S. Haber

Date(s) of Disposition: 

06/28/1996: Chain gang claim settled when DOC agreed to permanently stop chaining inmates in groups of five.
09/27/1996: Toilet facilities claim settled when DOC agreed to provide soap and water, toilet paper, portable toilets, and some measure of privacy for outside work squads.
08/10/1998: District Court approved the chain gang settlement and adopted the Magistrate's recommendations in part, finding that the manner in which the hitching post was used violated the inmates' rights.
12/07/1998: District Court approved the toilet facilities agreement and dismissed the claim.