Arizona Chain Gangs

A Day on Death Row

by Richard Rossi

On March 1, 2000, at 6:00 a.m., a platoon of guards came into our pod. We could hear the belly chains and leg irons as they were being dragged along the floor. We were promptly told that the death row chain gang was being restarted.

Five men out of the ten in this pod were told to strip naked and they were searched. After which they were handed clothes to put on. Belly chains were put on the men and their hands were placed into the handcuffs that are permanently attached to the chains that go around your waist. Once out of their cells, leg irons were placed on their ankles. The length of the chain between the two legs is about 12". This length is shorter than the leg irons that were used for the first chain gang at CB6. I mention this because with such a short chain between your legs, it is impossible to take normal strides. When you are hobbled like this, you walk around like a penguin. You hop along and it is not comfortable. You work the whole day in these restraints. By the end of the day your ankles are aching. It is very frustrating. This goes on for 8 hours.

Ten men per chain gang. We were told a new garden was to be constructed on the prison grounds. Unlike the garden in CB6, the general public can not see what is going on because the field is deep inside the prison itself, and no one is allowed on the prison grounds. Abuses can not be observed.

We are totally isolated. The first task we were asked to do was to erect a one hundred yard long chain link fence to close in the work area. If you have never been to the desert, you should be told that the ground is not loose sand. Rather it is extremely hard, like concrete. It is desert wasteland. There is a term for this hard ground. It is called "caliche". This is a very thick crust of calcium carbonate that forms on the stony soil of arid regions. To give you an idea of how hard it is, it took ten men three weeks to dig 20 three-foot deep holes for the fence posts.

When the first chain gang was formed, Governor Symington stated that the death row prisoners would be made to do hard labor digging holes and breaking rocks because we were not being executed fast enough for his liking. And that is exactly what is going on again.

Those who were not digging the holes were given sledge hammers and told to break up a large concrete platform to make more room for planting. It is just to make work. Nothing has changed.

I never thought the chain gang would be started again, especially after prisoner Floyd Thornton and his wife were killed in an escape attempt in 1997. Three years have passed and we are being punished again. There seems to be some perverse pleasure derived from those in power to single out death row for this labor detail. It certainly is not fun in the sun. We are also told that there are no plans to stop this detail. In my eyes, I was sentenced to be executed and send to prison as punishment. I was never sentenced to be punished by hard labor. That is additional punishment heaped on me by the Department of Corrections and the state legislature. The judge did not order this treatment. I feel it is unconstitutional and unusual. However, the administration does not feel as I do.

The general population prisoners are not similarly being forced to hard labor. It is sadistic and shameful. There is no legitimate purpose for this punishment. It will take over a month to break up the caliche and turn the ground. Not much can grow in this barren wasteland. The officers stand outside the fence with their shotguns at the ready. Only one unarmed officer is inside the field area, and he stand about 60 yards away from the work crew. He calls out his orders long distance.

The officers know how much resentment has built up inside these prisoners who have been treated as less than human for the three years we have been in this control unit. They realized how dangerous it would be to allow a prisoner to get close enough to them. They fear an attack that would cause serious harm to them. Myself, I do not advocate violence, but there are many angry prisoners who have so much pent up frustration from being treated as less than human for the three years we have been tortured in this control unit. Locked away in small cages in total isolation. In the free world, people treat their pets better than we are treated. This has turned many men into primitive animals. This is not rehabilitation. This is slavery. This is madness.

A prison psychiatrist, George Nash, issued a statement to the Arizona Republic newspaper upon his leaving the department. He said, "The prisons reflect the failure of our society, and we don't want to look at that. I just got tired. I decided I couldn't change the prison system, and it was just a discouraging job. I was starting to develop anger and resentment." He was feeling anger and resentment and he never had to live in one of these cages. Imagine that!

Since the new chain gang has started, not one newspaper or TV station in this state has picked up the story. Since it is only death row that is being made to toil in the desert where the temperatures range between 100-117 degrees in the sun for six months out of the year, I do not think I am overstating matters when I say that this situation closely resembles a "forced labor extermination camp." After all, we are forced to work against our wills, and eventually we will be executed. Not unlike the forced labor extermination camps in Nazi Germany.

We prisoners are being systematically debilitated. The punishment, retribution, revenge and suffering exists because society allows it to go on. The citizens of this state allowed the state legislature to pass statutes permitting this hard labor chain gang for vengeance and punishment. It is as plain and simple as that. There is a sickness in society that is reaching epidemic proportions.

Richard Rossi 50337
PO Box 3400
Florence, AZ 85232
Death Row
April 2000

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