A Look Back: Historic SPLC Lawsuit Ended Barbaric Prison Practices

When Michael Austin was sent to an Alabama prison in 1995, he was subjected to a brutal practice from a bygone era — the prison chain gang.

When Michael Austin was sent to an Alabama prison in 1995, he was subjected to a brutal practice from a bygone era — the prison chain gang.

Shackled at the ankles with leg irons, he was bound to four other inmates as they worked outdoors, reviving a dangerous and demeaning practice that had disappeared from the South three decades earlier.

Across the state, chain gangs had been reinstated, and inmates cleared trash and brush along highways as chains chafed their legs and drew blood. They endured the sweltering Alabama heat and sometimes the hot temper of the inmate chained to them. And they worried about the unthinkable: a shackled inmate stumbling into the roadway and pulling several men into oncoming traffic or a fight where chained bystanders are injured or killed.

Acting as his own attorney, Austin filed a lawsuit claiming the practice was cruel and unusual punishment. The Southern Poverty Law Center then took up the case, filing a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of Austin and all other inmates who were subject to being assigned to the chain gangs. The SPLC lawsuit not only ended the chain gangs but other degrading practices discovered in Alabama's prison system."It wasn't designed for any purpose but to humiliate and degrade," said Austin, who was serving time for a drug charge. "Just because a person is in prison, he's still a human being. A human being needs to be treated like a human being, not like an animal. If you continue, you'll eventually bring the animal out in them."

"These chain gangs were nothing more than photo opportunities for political gain," said Morris Dees, SPLC founder and chief trial counsel. "The practice had nothing to do with deterring crime and everything to do with generating attention for politicians who wanted to prove they were tough on crime."

Images of the Old South
The chain gangs returned to Alabama in 1995 under then-Gov. Fob James, who suggested reinstating the practice on a radio talk show during the final weeks of his gubernatorial campaign. The return of chain gangs brought international attention to Alabama. Newspapers across the country and the world wrote about the practice that evoked stark images of the state's past, a history stained by racial violence and injustice.

"Watching the chain gang at work, it's impossible to wipe away the images of the Old South. … The clinking of chains make an unmistakable music," wrote a reporter for Florida's St. Petersburg Times.

Other states, not to be outdone when it came to being "tough on crime," also revived the chain gangs. Later, a report by Amnesty International would single out Alabama and several other states for defying international standards banning the use of chains or leg irons.

"This is not a deterrent," an Alabama inmate told The Boston Globe in 1995. "This is a hatred builder."

The attention only encouraged supporters of the practice, who seemed intent on introducing even more brutal practices into Alabama's prisons.

"I'd like to have some real electric fence," Ron Jones, Alabama's then-commissioner of corrections, told a European newspaper in 1995. "Around 5,000 volts. That's what you'd call extremely lethal. I think we should think about caning as well. Some of our inmates come here with very fixed attitudes."

But a year after chain gangs returned to Alabama, an inmate was shot and killed by an officer after a fight broke out with another chain gang member. Faced with the SPLC's federal lawsuit, the death of an inmate, mounting reports of injuries and fights, and other security concerns, the state Department of Corrections signed a legal agreement in 1996 to permanently ban chain gangs.

Two years later, the SPLC won a court victory on another of its court claims. This victory would end the barbaric practice of shackling inmates to metal rails, known as "hitching posts," as punishment. An inmate's arms were often raised, and he would remain shackled to the post in that position in the heat for many hours, sometimes without water or bathroom breaks. A federal court ruled in 1998 that the hitching post violated the U.S. Constitution's ban on "cruel and unusual punishment."

Larry Hope, one of the plaintiffs in the case, filed a separate lawsuit for damages. In 2002, the SPLC represented Hope in his appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. 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.

"The end of the chain gangs and hitching posts marked the end of a brutal era for inmates in Alabama's prisons," said Rhonda Brownstein, the former SPLC legal director who handled the case. "These inhumane practices have no place in our justice system."

The enthusiasm for the chain gangs in other states waned in the wake of Alabama's legal fight with the SPLC.

More than a decade later, Austin is out of prison and enjoying life. The role he played in ending the Alabama chain gangs showed him the power of change. He continued his education while in prison and focused on turning his life around.

"I wasn't going to serve time (in prison)," said Austin, 44. "This time was going to serve me."

Today, he owns a small business in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and enjoys family life.

"Life is just a bundle of joy to me."