Until I watch the prisoners line up alongside the chains laid out on the ground, I have half imagined that the term ‘chain gang’ is being used in a loose and euphemistic way.
But no. They are wearing heavy-duty work boots and, as the chains are padlocked around their ankles, they raise their left legs up behind them, bending at the knees like well-trained horses obliging a farrier.
What makes this scene even more disturbing is the sex of the prisoners. They are all women.
This is Arizona, America’s most draconian state. It is also its hottest, averaging around 40°C in the summer, which makes the concept of hard labour outdoors seem all the more cruel.
Although it is 5am and dark, already the heat of this August day is apparent. On a command from Officer Houston – a strong-looking female prison guard who, even without the gun in her holster, you wouldn’t want to mess with – the prisoners begin stomping their right boots, marking time.
After half a minute comes the order to march and, with a stomp of the right boot, followed by a drag of the left, they set off through the corridors of the Estrella Jail, Phoenix. Stomp. Drag. Stomp. Drag.
As it echoes, the sound seems eerie, like a receding freight train. Then the singing starts, a military marching song:
‘Black and white we wear with shame.
These prison guards, they know our names.
We work hard and march for hours;
If we don’t we can’t have showers.
5am is when we rise;
Where we’ll go is a surprise.
No more drink and no more drugs,
No more boyfriends who are thugs.’
As well as a gun, Officer Houston carries on her belt a walkie-talkie, keys, CS gas, a torch, a Taser gun and an extendable baton. She is one of four guards who will keep an eye on the 15-strong chain gang today.
She wears a desert uniform with, less congruously, a pink watch, and she carries a pink folder for the roll-call.
‘Some of the girls pick up the marching and the singing in a couple of days,’ she says out of the corner of her mouth, as if reluctant even to let words go. ‘Others take longer.’
Some of the prison guards, including Officer Houston far left (STEFAN RUIZ)
Chain gangs were done away with in America in the 1950s, but they reintroduced them here for men in 1995 – or, rather, 80-year-old Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who styles himself ‘America’s toughest lawman’, reintroduced them.
The world’s first female chain gang is a more recent innovation of his.
Arpaio is a publicity-loving Fox News regular and Tea Party hero known for his hard-right views on everything from illegal immigration to his belief that President Obama isn’t American by birth.
He’s famously abrasive, divisive – and popular, judging by his 20 years in office. We’ll meet him later.
For now it is time to get into a paddy wagon with ‘Sheriff’s chain gang’ written on the side. The ‘gals’ – that’s what the wardens call them and, in truth, they do all seem alarmingly young, most of them in their early twenties – wait patiently to step on and then shuffle and rattle their way to their seats.
In the paddy wagon on the way to the latest labouring site (STEFAN RUIZ)
Perhaps surprisingly, most of them are here for minor crimes such as drink-driving, petty fraud and shoplifting.
As the sun rises, we drive off to a secret destination, one that changes every day for fear that prisoners might notify their friends and attempt to escape. The chain gang is an alternative to ‘the hole’ – that is, ‘lockdown’ for 23 hours a day.
For Vicky Manguso, a 36-year-old mother of three serving nine months for prescription fraud, it means ‘we see something different, passing cars, people. And they let you listen to the radio on the drive out.’
Vicky Manguso, 36, who is serving nine months for prescription fraud (STEFAN RUIZ)
They are not allowed to listen to music in the prison. They are also denied salt, cigarettes, coffee, ketchup and mirrors. And the only television they can watch is the weather channel, to remind them of the conditions they have to work in, and the cookery channel, to remind them how hungry they are.
They get two meals a day, valued at 30 cents each, and these are always the same: a bread roll with peanut butter, a carton of milk and an orange.
An hour out of town we stop at an expanse of government wasteland. The prisoners are handed water bottles and factor-60 sunblock.
They then queue up to use the portable lavatory that has been towed behind the wagon. Because of the chains, when one goes they all have to wait.
The work varies from day to day. Sometimes they paint over graffiti and pick up litter. Once a week they bury unclaimed bodies in paupers’ graves, some of which, as Manguso tells me, ‘smell bad’. Today they are clearing weeds and brush.
The earth is cracked and red dust flies up when the women use their shovels. It’s dirty, gruelling work made more difficult by their awkward iron chains.
And the public humiliation. Passing cars honk their horns or slow down so that their passengers can take pictures. One shouts: ‘Was it worth it?’
It reminds you that all this is intended to be theatre, the equivalent of the stocks. The prisoners are not allowed to acknowledge the cars.
The women at work in chains; the unchained prisoner in theforeground is a ‘trustee’ – a former chain-gang member who hands out water, food and tools to the workers. (STEFAN RUIZ)
Typically, inmates do 30 days at a time on the chain gang and this is the last day for Delphina Marquel, 25, who is serving three months for cashing a fake cheque.
She is clearly the joker of the group and lightens the mood by pretending to take a coffee order and saying to one inmate: ‘Do you want whipped cream on that?’
Like the majority of the inmates, Marquel is Latino – an ethnic group that Sheriff Joe has been accused of picking on.
He says he’s just going after illegal immigrants but earlier this year he was sued by the Justice Department for civil liberties violations against Latinos.
‘They hate me, the Hispanic community, because they’re afraid they’re going to be arrested,’ Arpaio said in an interview in 2009. ‘And they’re all leaving town, so I think we’re doing something good.’
Gabrielle Zucker, 20, has two months left of a six-month tariff. She is in for trafficking stolen goods to pay for her heroin habit. She wears glasses and has a tattoo on her neck.
‘My mom turned me in so that I would get off drugs.’
Officer Houston explains: ‘The idea is to teach them to work as a team, as well as learn self-discipline.’
Has it worked, I ask Zucker? She shrugs: ‘Sure.’
I meet Sheriff Joe, as he is known, back in town. He is a small, bespectacled man with a bulb nose and two chunky rings on his fingers.
He has the manner of one who doesn’t care if you like him or not, though people do seem to like him, given the millions of dollars donated to his re-election campaigns.
He is sheriff of Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and has a population of nearly four million.
‘It’s the only female chain gang in the world,’ he says proudly. ‘Started it with men and thought: “Why discriminate against women?”’
Why? Well, where do I start? This is the 21st century, not the 13th. But on a more personal level, I say that I felt uncomfortable watching women do hard labour. I ask him whether he ever does too.
‘No. The pilot who flew my plane in today was a woman. We have them in the army fighting. And in the police. So no. Things have changed. Why should women be treated different in prison?’
It’s very hot today, I say.
‘It’s cool at the moment,’ he contradicts. ‘You should have been here last month when it was 115°F [46°C]. That was hot.’
But most of them seem to be in for minor offences, I say. Does the punishment fit the crime?
‘Drugs? Theft? Perjury? These are all serious crimes. The other reason we do it is deterrence. Did you notice the people driving by tooting their horns?
I hope the parents who drive past with their children say, “If you do something wrong, that is what will happen to you.”’
Sheriff Joe hopes none of the prisoners told me they liked him.
‘I don’t want them to like me, or the chain gang. I don’t want them to like the food. I want people to read your article and say: “When I go to Arizona I’m going to behave myself.”’
What sort of names does he get called? ‘Hitler. Anything you can think of in front of my building. The protesters will be there in front of my office today, and in front of my church.’
Back on the paddy wagon on the way to the latest labouring site (STEFAN RUIZ)
Back on the chain gang, the prisoners are shuffling through the blistering landscape to the paddy wagon, their work done for the day. Their dusty faces are streaked with sweat.
I ask Manguso if the chain gang is a deterrent.
‘I’d seen them before and they didn’t terrify me. Has it changed me? It’s stopped me cussing so much. You get punished if you cuss. I find the marching the most tiring part. It makes my legs hurt, like a dance class.’
Delphina Marquel, the joker who is leaving the gang, rises and says: ‘It’s been an honour serving with you, ladies.’ She then offers Officer Houston a tissue to dry her tears. Houston does not smile.
Back at the prison the women line up and start singing again as they march back inside:
‘Marching through the avenue,
One more week and then we’re through.’
Other prisoners watch them impassively.
‘My back is aching, my feet are sore.
I won’t break the law no more.’
Once inside, they are strip-searched, behind a partition. ‘They make us squat and cough,’ says Manguso when she joins the others, polishing their boots. ‘It’s so embarrassing. When I worked in the kitchens they made us strip together.’
It is time for them to shower and change into fresh clothes. They all have to wear pink pants, pink socks and pink T-shirts – an idea taken from one of Sheriff Joe’s all-male prisons, but one that doesn’t quite work here as the women don’t mind wearing pink – with slogans printed on them such as ‘Meth User’ and ‘Clean(ing) and sober’.
Inside the women have to wear pink prison-issue T-shirts with slogans (STEFAN RUIZ)
All of them have (literally) let their hair down and suddenly look much more feminine. Officer Houston tells me that they find ingenious ways to wear make-up, such as rubbing the coloured adverts in magazines with talc and then dabbing their eyelids with it.
Those not in the hole now head out to ‘the yard’, a gravelled area surrounded by watchtowers, fences and coils of razor wire. It is filled with army-surplus tents.
This is where they live, under canvas on bunk beds. The watchtower lights stay on all night.
Tent City, Sheriff Joe’s ‘favourite spot’ (STEFAN RUIZ)
Tent City, as it is known, is how the jail copes with the overflow of prisoners. It has been criticised by Amnesty International, but Arpaio recently called Tent City ‘my favourite spot’ in the jail.
There is a rattle of keys as Officer Houston approaches. ‘Tuck that shirt in,’ she barks at a passing prisoner.
I ask her if she ever feels sorry for the inmates.
‘No, I don’t. They are paying the price. I don’t ask why they are in here, but some of them on the chain gang do feel better about themselves for having given something back to the community.’
I overhear a nearby squabble: ‘I wasn’t talking to you, I was talking to her.’
Officer Houston hears it too, and says:
‘Be nice, ladies.’