The Chain Gang Charlie Crist is Born

June 21, 2010

Charlie Crist's Image

“I’m as conservative as any governor. I’m chain gang Charlie. I’m pro-gun. I’m pro life,”

That’s Charlie Crist way back in 2009 before he made a sincere and heartfelt decision to completely change.

Charlie Crist recently became the darling of Florida’s teachers as he polished his indie cred by vetoing an absolutely horrible education bill.  But he hasn’t always had such concerns for schools.

In the 1990′s, Florida had a choice:  we could start down the road toward the proper funding of education and programs for the poor, or we could lock more people up and devise humiliating ways to publicly shame them.

Led by Republican Legislators like Chain Gang Charlie Crist, Florida decided to follow the lead of Alabama and Arizona and spend money on shackled work gangs and other high profile regressive prison policies.

After spearheading the legislation that cost 2 billion dollars and would force Florida’s prisons chief to “require selected inmates to perform labor wearing leg irons in chain gang work groups,” Crist embarked on a fact finding mission with the secretary of the Department of Corrections Harry Singletary to have a look at Alabama’s trendsetting chain gang revival and maybe get some ideas for Florida’s big debut.

As Singletary whined to a reporter that “Everyone wants a silver bullet, and this is not the silver bullet.  This is not the answer to the crime problem.  We could have 45,000 people on chain gangs, but if people are still having babies at 13, if we’re not educating folks or if there’s not enough jobs, then we’re still going to have problems,” Crist was bizy checking out the latest in Chain Gang Haute Couture:

Pink Suit and Chain Gang Charllie

Singletary came away from Alabama convinced that the only practical implementation of the legislature’s demands involved individual shackles rather than the Alabama model which featured prisoners chained to each other.

Shackled prisoners Alabama 1995

But Charlie Crist had a pretty specific image in mind when he first fantasized his chain gang law, and in that image a group of 5 beautifully muscled bad boys, dark skinned, heavily perspiring, bound with handcuffs and leg irons and shackled together with chains break rocks beside the Interstate.  People driving through get all warm and fuzzy as they pass within inches of these dangerous and swarthy criminals who are being beneficially overseen by several heavily armed white men with orders to shoot to kill.

Chain Gang Charlie with his "Gang"

Oh, wait – that’s not the image of Charlie with his “gang” that I was trying to post… let’s try this oped cartoon from the Gainesville Sun instead:

Charlie Crist denied

Good stuff, and Chain Gang Charlie was not about to allow the teary eyed liberal prisons chief to mess with the exquisitely detailed image that Crist had spent years thinking about.

Crist wrote the Governor.  He wrote editorials.  He complained to reporters.  He helpfully pointed out that gangs of 5 were way better than gangs of one, but to no avail.  Chain Gang Charlie’s chain gangs were about to be ruined by Singletary and no one seemed to care.

But state legislators say the program clashes with what they envisioned when they passed the chain gang law earlier this year. Senator Charlie Crist, a Republican from St. Petersburg who sponsored the law, said individual chains would pose a higher safety risk because they would not prevent an inmate from jumping into the back of a car to escape. Mr. Crist also said the setup made the punishment less harsh.

“The idea is not to be cruel but to have an appropriate punishment that also serves as a deterrent,” he said.

The Florida Department of Corrections is scheduled to start the program with 90 inmates at three prisons, and expand it by Dec. 1 to 210 inmates at seven prisons.

Corrections officials like Mr. Singletary have been reluctant partners in reinstituting chain gangs, which were abandoned in Florida and other states in the 1940′s, but which this year made a modest comeback, reflecting the nation’s tougher stance on crime. While supporters see them as an effective way to send an anti-crime message, critics cringe at the spectacle of shackled men, most black, stirring images of slavery.

The executive director of the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, Alvin J. Bronstein, said the Alabama chain gang program had led to more injuries among inmates, for example, when someone tripped and fell, dragging others down. He said he had also received reports of fights among inmates because of slow or fast walkers in the chain.

Mr. Bronstein said the Florida and Arizona programs were more humane and preferable because they reduced the risk of accidents and tension among inmates.

So Charlie got his chain gangs, and they were no walk in the park, but they were not as punitive and regressive as Crist had fervently imagined they might be.

Chain Gang Charlie Crist is Born

And Chain Gang Charlie Crist is Born.

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