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The Georgia chain gang system was single-handedly exposed by one man, Robert E. Burns, who escaped not once, but twice from Georgia chain gangs. His Depression-era best-seller "I Am a Fugitive from the Georgia Chain Gang!" was made into a hit movie "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang" starring Paul Muni, and initiated prison reform in the state of Georgia, eventually leading to the dismantling of the chain gang system of punishment.

Burns was a WWI vet who fell on hard times, drifting about, doing odd jobs. He eventually fell in with a couple bad characters and the three of them robbed a grocer of $5.80. Burns and his compatriots were caught and convicted; Burns was sentenced to 6 to 10 years hard labor.

Georgia chain gang conditions were brutal. Men were put out to work, swinging 12lb sledge hammers for 16 hours a day, malnourished on a diet of corn pone and chowder peas. Prisoners were shackled together, unable to move their legs a full stride. The shackles rubbed against their legs and the resulting wounds often became infected, leading to illness and death. Prisoners who could not keep up with the grueling pace of labor were beaten. Prisoners were regularly whipped for disobeying orders. Particularly recalcitrant prisoners were shut in a sweat box, a small coffin-like enclosure with no ventilation, under the merciless Georgia sun. Sweat box prisoners suffered severe dehydration, hallucinations and frequently, death.

Publication of Burns' memoir and the release of the movie made from it, infuriated Georgia officials, who characterized Burns' account as a pack of Yankee lies. The state of Georgia countered first with denial, then with a public-relations campaign. Despite negative publicity and the dismantling of chain gangs by other states, Georgia continued the use of chain gangs as late as 1962, the last state in the United States to do so.

As part of the "get tough on crime" political atmosphere at the end of the 20th century, the states of Alabama, Florida, Arizona and Iowa have passed laws allowing chain gangs; other states are considering similar laws. Arizona has instituted the first female chain gang.

This write-up inspired and informed by The History Channel http://www.thehistorychannel.com/ feature The Big House: Chain Gang Breakout, aired Saturday June 16, 2001 4pm.

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