'What we've got here is failure to communicate."
- Captain (played by Strother Martin), "Cool Hand Luke"
And what we South Carolinians have got here is failure to communicate on positive prison policies.
For instance, Spartanburg County Sheriff Chuck Wright communicated Monday that he wants to bring back chain gangs.
The hard-nosed lawman even called a news conference to cite the long criminal record of the 56-year-old suspect charged in last week's 24-hour armed-robbery spree in Spartanburg and Greenville counties as evidence that probation is "not working."
But as Spartanburg's WSPA-TV reported, Sheriff Wright also doesn't see prison time working under current S.C. incarceration circumstances.
So what does Wright, an ardent "Stand Your Ground" advocate, think would work to reduce criminal recidivism?
"I envision them not sitting around in the jails and getting fat on our dollar. I envision them working six days a week, 12 hours a day and not being sentenced to 15 years at the taxpayers' expense."
Wright's chain-gang nostalgia is shared by some state lawmakers, including Rep. Bill Chumley, R-Spartanburg.
But how to sell that 20th century relic in 21st century South Carolina?
Wright: "If you really want to get the public's attention, tell them how much they'll save."
That pitch is based on using convicts to perform such manual labor as cutting grass along highways.
However, University of South Carolina Upstate criminology professor Reid Toth told WSPA that "studies have demonstrated" that a chain gang doesn't "have any rehabilitative effect for the inmates, and it actually brings some security risks to the public."
The S.C. Department of Corrections also expressed security - and cost - concerns.
Here in River City
Closer to home: According to the Charleston County Sheriff's Office website, "The Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center assigns offenders who are sentenced from various courts to the community service program to provide productive and meaningful work to government agencies, non-profit organizations and the cleanup of public roads."
And the S.C. Corrections Department has a small program in which minimum-security cons do light work for some county governments - on a voluntary basis. Sheriff Wright wants mandatory chain-gang duty for non-violent offenders.
OK, so roadwork does keep that chain gang busy in 1967's "Cool Hand Luke."
And as Professor Harold Hill (Robert Preston) warns in "Ya Got Trouble" from another cinematic classic, Meredith Wilson's "The Music Man" (1962):
"Friends, the idle brain is the devil's playground."
Yet as law-abiding Post and Courier colleague Glenn Smith has exhaustively reported, our state's reckless habit of warehousing the mentally ill in prisons creates devilish dilemmas, too.
Back to "Cool Hand Luke," set in 1940s Florida:
World War II vet Luke Jackson (Paul Newman in his blue-eyed prime), initially serving two years for removing tops from parking meters, repeatedly escapes from a prison farm and is repeatedly recaptured and brought back to it to serve more time - and to suffer more severe punishments,
Captain, laying down his law: "You run one time, you got yourself a set of chains. You run twice you got yourself two sets. You ain't gonna need no third set, 'cause you gonna get your mind right."
Therein lies the persisting challenge of rehabilitating a criminal:
How can we get his "mind right"?
Another puzzle: How can we South Carolinians not in stir get our minds right about the consequences of our underfunded, overwhelmed state prison system?
Sure, it's annoying to think that convicts in some ways have it easier than the taxpaying folks paying their ways.
So would you rather do your job or do time?
And though too many comedians too often use the appalling prevalence of prison rape as a punch line, that sick joke is on our entire society.
Pros and cons
No, prisoners shouldn't be coddled. But neither should they be abused.
Yes, putting cons to productive work makes sense. But chain gangs would likely cost - not save - money.
Plus, fresh roadside images of convicts, many of them black (though the "Cool Hand Luke" cons are white), forced into demanding physical toil would revive ugly stereotypes.
As Sam Cooke put it in his captivating 1960 hit record "Chain Gang":
"You hear them moaning their lives away."
Take that as fair warning against a chain-gang comeback.
And if you're bad and/or unlucky enough to become a prison-farm inmate, take these "Cool Hand Luke" words from Carr the floor walker (Clifton James) seriously:
"These here spoons you keep with you. Any man loses his spoon spends a night in the box."
Frank Wooten is assistant editor of The Post and Courier. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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