SHARPES, Fla. - 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.
2007: Ariz. inmates convicted of DUI wear pink
"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on county roadsides is the appropriate way to get across an anti-crime message and wonder if the concept itself is outdated or even unconstitutional.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 U.S. 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. It's not a forced assignment. And it doesn't include inmates who are a danger to the community.
Controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona's Maricopa County, known for his tough law-and-order stance, has had male chain gangs since 1995, female chain gangs since 1996 and chain gangs for juveniles convicted as adults since 2004. Those inmates, who work eight hours a day six days a week, also are volunteers who want to get outside even if it means weeding, clearing brush or picking up litter in the hot sun.
Other sheriff's departments across the country - including Bristol County, Mass.; Butler County, Ohio; and Clallam County, Wash., - have volunteer chain gangs, some since since the late 1990s though Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson prefers to call his inmates tandem work crews. Prisons in several states including Arizona and Iowa also have shackled inmate crews that do landscaping or cleanup outside prison grounds.
A few sheriff's departments have tried and abandoned the idea, including Johnson County, Ind., which had too small a staff to keep up with the program's popularity.
The Brevard County Sheriff's Office operates about five inmate work details outside the jail on any given day, 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."
Ivey said the chain gang instills a strong work ethic in the inmates, which can be part of their rehabilitation,while also acting as a high-profiledeterrent to passersby.
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.
"Once they're sentenced, we're allowed to work them X number of hours per day," Ivey said, adding that he chose volunteers for the chain gang because he wanted to make sure all inmates on the detail bought into its mission of being an anti-crime public relations campaign.
The sheriff said all jail work details save taxpayers money because the inmates do manual labor that the county otherwise would have to pay others to do.
Some work in the jail's cafeteria. Some refurbish bicycles. Some train dogs in shelters. The Sheriff's Department estimates that all of the work programs provide about $10 million worth of labor each year.
The new, all-male chain gang is working in cooperation with the Brevard County Public Works Department. Lately, they've been cleaning up trash along the roads.
Ivey said the work assignment gives the convicts a chance to enjoy sunshine and fresh air.
"It's got its perks for them, as well," Ivey said.
Ivey said he wasn't aware of another chain gang in Florida. Spokeswoman Ann Howard for the Florida Department of Corrections said her department doesn't use them.
Traditional chain gangs, in which inmates are shackled together, were challenged as violating the U.S. Constitution's protection against cruel and unusual punishment in a 1996 lawsuit in Alabama, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. The U.S. Supreme Court also found it unconstitutional to shackle an inmate to a post.
In Ivey's iteration of the chain gang, inmates ankles are shackled, but inmates are not chained to one another.
"It's hard to say whether a modified chain gang in which prisoners are individually chained for security purposes would pass constitutional muster," the ACLU of Florida's Johnson said.
"Chain gangs send a bad message about our county," said Lawton, who is based in Palm Bay, Fla. "I don't think people want to come to this county as a tourist or a beach person and see people in chains."
A campaign to help inmates with drug addiction, which is a contributing factor in criminal activity, is a more productive use of the department's time and resources, Lawton said.
Ivey said the inmates were receptive to the idea when he presented it.
"Before I even got through talking about the program, I had people volunteering," he said.
Jeffrey Alan Rhoades volunteered. He was arrested for stealing his aunt's purse in July 2012. He was convicted and sentenced to probation but tested positive for drugs in December and was sentenced to serve 270 days in jail.
"We're just here today to clean up the park, help out, you know, make sure everything's clean for the community and set an example for little kids," he said recently, standing in the parking lot at the Pineda Causeway Boat Ramp, wearing an orange hat and a fluorescent green vest over his black and white stripes.
He and seven other men walked around the park, picking bits of plastic from the vegetation near the river.
Spirits seemed high. Some men smiled as they worked. Sometimes, the men sang in call-and-response chorus:
We are the chain gang,
the mighty Ivey chain gang.