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Inmate 'chain gangs' back at work

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. -- They spent the day tethered together by chains shackled around their left ankles, painting an iron fence under the watchful eyes of armed guards.

But the 10 inmates didn't mind the work. They volunteered for it."I haven't been out for 15 months," said a 37-year-old man who asked to be identified as Scott. "We just wanted the opportunity to be in the fresh air."

Chain gangs, once a symbol of pitiless Southern justice, have come to Massachusetts.

In what is believed to be the state's first such work crew, the inmates Wednesday painted a fence at a New Bedford drug treatment center.

Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, who prefers the term "tandem work crews," scoffs at suggestions his crews are more about humiliation than rehabilitation.

"Chain gangs were meant to break people down. My program is the complete opposite -- it builds self-esteem and self confidence and helps them know they've accomplished something," he said.

The prisoners, dressed in red shirts and pants, agreed.

"I don't think it's humiliating at all," said Kevin, 39, serving 2 1/2 years on a probation violation related to drunken-driving convictions. "It's more humiliating to sit behind the prison walls."

Chain gangs, largely black crews, broke rocks and built roads in the South in the late 19th century. By 1970, they had vanished in much of the country with the advent of civil rights and prison reform movements.

In the 1990s, chain gangs began to resurface, first in Alabama, followed by Arizona, Florida and Iowa. Maricopa County, Ariz., started one for women, too.

Officials insist today's chain gangs are far from the shackled crews that gained infamy in song (Sam Cooke's "Chain Gang") and film ("Cool Hand Luke").