SHARPES (FloridaToday.com) - The sheriff in this county of beaches and spaceships has launched a very visible anti-crime campaign that civil rights activists are questioning.
For the past few weeks, a small band of convicted inmates from Brevard County Jail has been working on a chain gang. First-year Sheriff Wayne Ivey says he launched the project as a sort of living and breathing public service announcement, choosing black-and-white striped costumes harkening to a bygone era; black boots with chains around the ankles; and bold, bright signage aimed at making the chain gang as visible as possible.
"Not a new concept, but certainly an effective one," Ivey said.
Not everyone agrees. Civil rights activists and others have doubts about whether shackled inmates on county roadsides is the appropriate way to get across an anti-crime message and wonder whether the concept itself is outdated or even unconstitutional.
"Given the connotations of slavery and forced labor that a chain gang brings up, it is not ideal," said spokesman Baylor Johnson of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, who noted the U.S. Supreme Court in 1996 found some kinds of chain gangs violated the Constitution's protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
Ivey stressed that his chain gangs are not shackled to one another and each man is a volunteer.
Controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona's Maricopa County has had male chain gangs since 1995, female chain gangs since 1996 and chain gangs for juveniles convicted as adults since 2004.
Other sheriff's departments across the country - including Bristol County, Mass.; Butler County, Ohio; and Clallam County, Wash., - have volunteer chain gangs, some since the late 1990s.
The Brevard County Sheriff's Office operates about five inmate work details outside the jail, but this new work crew is the only one outfitted in bold, black-and-white stripes and locked up in chains. The sheriff hopes the new look will send a message.
"I remember growing up as a small kid, looking out the window of our home at members of the chain gang working in a ditch and thinking to myself: That's not a place I would ever want to be," Ivey said. "I've said from the very beginning that I'm going to put emphasis on crime prevention, and this is a component of that. Not wanting to go to jail is a form of crime prevention."
Under state law, only inmates convicted of a crime can participate on a work detail. They must qualify for "trustee" status, meaning their criminal history is neither extensive nor violent and they have demonstrated good behavior in jail.
Thirty-five men volunteered for the eight positions on the chain gang.