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Working on the Chain Gang

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"All day long they work so hard
Till the sun is goin' down
Workin' on the highways and byways
And wearing, wearing a frown
You hear them moanin' their lives away
Then you hear somebody say
'That's the sound of the men
Workin' on the chain gang'"
Sam Cooke, "Chain Gang"

A group of prisoners are shackled together, usually at the ankles, to perform acts of grueling physical labor, such as digging ditches, building or cleaning roads, and chipping stone, as a form of punishment.

Occasionally characters on a chain gang may attempt to make an escape while shackled together. This necessitates the escapees' efforts to find a means to break their shackles as well as cooperate with one another until they find a way to remove them — something that they usually learn "the hard way" after chained individuals try to run in opposite directions, possibly even running around different ends of a lamppost or similar structure which will immediately stop them dead in their tracks.

Working on the Chain Gang is Older Than Radio and is very much Truth in Television, although inmates are no longer chained together. The punishment became popular soon after the Civil War (1865) when slavery was abolished. It was a great way to get free labor without being outright slavery. African-Americans and out-of-staters were particularly vulnerable to be sentenced to state-forced hard labor.


Chain gang work remained commonplace in Southern US states up until the mid-1950s but has since become everything but a Dead Horse Trope; only one county in Arizona (Maricopa) and one in Florida (Wakulla) still make use of chain gangs, and the inmates aren't shackled together anymore. Nowadays, chain gangs mostly just exist in period pieces in media that involve prisoners in the early half of the 20th Century. "Community service" often involves similar tasks, but leave the people doing it looking indistinguishable from volunteers or paid public employees. However, outside the United States, prison inmates are still used as free workforce for hard labor.

A Sub-Trope of Prisoner's Work. See Also: Chained Heat which, while usually occurring between only two characters—and not necessarily prisoners—bound to each other, can be expanded here to apply to even larger groups, if need be. In more fantastic films, this will be a feature of the Slave Galley. A Call-and-Response Song is often used to pass the time.



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    Comic Books 
  • Sleepwalker fought one group of villains called "The Chain Gang" who took this trope to the extreme, being four convicts who gained superpowers while chained together and who had to stay chained together for their powers to work.
  • Batman foes the Trigger Twins were working on a chain gang when they were sprung by woman claiming to be their sister in Robin Annual #6.
  • Jonah Hex: Jonah ends up working on a chain gang when he is sent undercover into the state penitentiary.
  • While not shackled together (they get a ball and chain instead), breaking rocks is the most common activity for criminals in Lucky Luke. One lifer took to making them into small cubes, while the prison once got a guard dog that prevented the prisoners from stopping, leading to the prison having to order more rocks.
  • Wonder Woman (1987) while not shacked together the prisoners on Hope's End are put in Shock Collars and forced to walk in lines to mine for the Sangtee Empire.

    Film - Animated 
  • The ending of Robin Hood sees Prince John, Sir Hiss, and The Sheriff of Nottingham put to work in one of these. Earlier, a group of four raccoons are marched into prison while chained together.

    Film - Live Action 
  • The classic movie I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (pictured above) is about an innocent man who becomes Exactly What It Says on the Tin.
  • Take the Money and Run sees the main character sentenced to work on a chain gang after an unsuccessful bank robbery. One day, his gang decides to make a break for freedom. Hilarity Ensues.
  • O Brother, Where Art Thou? begins with Ulysses, Pete, and Delmar escaping from this while chained to each other (making jumping onto a moving train rather difficult). The soundtrack during this scene features the work song "Po' Lazarus" that was recorded from an actual Depression-era chain-gang. Pete, at one point, is recaptured and put back to work on the chain gang and has to be broken out of prison again.
  • Cool Hand Luke worked on one in-between several prison breaks.
  • Life stars Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence as two men sentenced to life in prison for a crime they didn't commit who end up on a chain gang.
  • The opening of 48 Hrs. has an escape from a chain gang in the desert. Of course, being already outside the prison walls makes this easier, if you have an accomplice.
  • There's one featured at the beginning of The Green Mile.
  • Spartacus opens with the title character cracking rocks in the hot Thracian sun.
  • In the beginning of Next Friday, Debo and his sidekick escaped prison heading to Craig's house for revenge and both are chained together. They tried to break the chain with a brick but later broke it when approaching in front of Craig and his father's truck leaving the city.
  • In The Shawshank Redemption, the corrupt Warden Norton uses the fact that a chain gang is essentially cheap slave labor to undercut local businesses... and then starts taking bribes from those businesses to keep his chain gangs at the prison rather than out working.
  • Django Unchained: This is the Fate Worse than Death Stephen lays out for Django after Schultz ruins their plan of freeing Broomhilda by shooting Candie:
    And as a slave of the LeQuint Dickey Mining Company, henceforth until the day you die, all day, every day, you will be swingin' a sledgehammer, turnin' big rocks into little rocks. Now, when you get there, they gonna take away your name, give you a number and a sledgehammer, and say: "Get to work!" One word of sass, they cut out your tongue. And they good at it, too. You won't bleed out. Oh, they does that real good! They gonna work ya all day, every day 'till your back give out.
  • Happy, Texas begins with the protagonists' escape from a chain gang.
  • The Flower Girl: When Kotpun goes to visit her brother, who is being held in a Japanese prison camp, she sees the inmates building a railway, chained together in pairs.
  • In Sullivan's Travels, Sullivan is sentenced to a chain gang when he's arrested and convicting for assaulting a train officer.
  • Hell's Highway (1932) is another classic prison expose film about prisoners working hard labor on a chain gang.
  • In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett leases a chain gang to work at her lumber mill to save on labor costs. Ashley is uncomfortable with the way the prisoners are treated, since they are clearly underfed and over-whipped. When Scarlett points out that Ashley did not object to owning slaves, he argues that his slaves were not treated that badly.
  • Lampshaded in Slipstream (1989). The cop played by Mark Hamill meets a woman in shirtsleeves clearing rocks from the airfield.
    Woman: Hey, skypilot! You feel like lying down after a long ride?
    Cop: Feel like piling rocks a couple of years?
    Woman: What do you think I've been doing?
  • Reform School Girls: Although not chained together, the girls are sent out to do hard labour clearing fields under the hot sun. At least one girl drops from exhaustion and dehydration.

  • In Les Misérables, Valjean and Chenildieu become friends for several years while on on a chain gang.
  • In Richard Wright's autobiography Black Boy, one of his memories from his childhood involves him mistaking a chain gang for a row of elephants.
  • Sounder: The boy makes his way to a chain gang labor camp where his father is supposed to be, but fails to find him. Lather the father is revealed to have been severely crippled by a dynamite blast while working on the chain gang.
  • In Invisible Man, Brother Tarp got the limp in his leg from dragging a chain for nineteen years, six months and two days until he escaped.
  • At the end of Otto and the S.S. by Leo Kessler, it's implied that an attempt to kill General Eisenhower during the Battle of the Bulge actually succeeded and he was replaced by his double. Anyone who could reveal this fact is now in a maximum security prison working on a chain gang who spend every day building a road in the prison yard and then breaking it up again.

    Live Action TV 

  • Sam Cooke's song "Chain Gang" (quoted above) was the second-biggest hit of his career (peaking at No. 2 in the US, No. 9 in the UK), as well as being the Trope Namer.
  • "Back on the Chain Gang" is one of the Pretenders' best-known songs, and makes a Shout-Out to Cooke's song in its chorus.
  • "I'm Free from the Chain Gang Now" by Jimmie Rodgers and later Johnny Cash.
  • The Crickets' "I Fought the Law" (later Covered Up by the Bobby Fuller Four, and still later by The Clash) has the singer "a-breakin' rocks in the hot sun", presumably as part of one of these.

    Music Video 
  • The video for AC/DC's "Jailbreak" features one.
  • "Deliverance" by Bubba Sparxxx starts off this way.

    Standup Comedy 
  • Woody Allen in his early standup days told a story of a gang that kidnapped him - they were captured and put on a chain gang, which they escaped by disguising themselves as an immense charm bracelet.

  • Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones: Jones was sentenced to a chain gang for murder. He escaped after killing his overseer with a shovel.
  • Les Misérables opens with a scene of a chain gang laboring: among them is protagonist Jean Valjean. (see also Literature)

    Theme Parks 
  • At one Venezuelan Theme Park, "La Venezuela de Antier" (Old-Timey Venezuela), all the cleaning employees are dressed as such, with the security employees wearing 1930's State Police uniforms.

    Video Games 
  • In SimCity 4, if you build the jail, chain gangs will show up on the streets in the vicinity of the building, performing manual labour with pickaxes on the roadside. Occasionally, one of them will try and make a run for it and has to be chased by the guards.
  • The fourth case of Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations features Terry Fawles, who dresses like a chain gang member and even wears a ball and chain. Except nobody else in the game ever does this, so the odd implication is that he chose to dress up like that.
  • The Powder Gangers in Fallout: New Vegas are former members of NCR chain gangs, and their founder is named Samuel Cooke. They were given dynamite to aid in mining, which is naturally also why they're all free now.
  • In KZ Manager you must make your inmates work so that you could have the cash needed to gas them and cremate their bodies.
  • In Planet Alcatraz, whenever you see railroads, you can see some prisoners working on them with pickaxes and sledgehammers. It's also implied to be the player's fate in one of the game over screens.
  • In the third The Legend of Kyrandia game, Malcolm can be sent to prison to perform menial labor: first making doilies, then chipping stone, and then chain-ganged into trimming hedges or rowing a boat. The player can either perform the labor and earn Malcolm's parole, or perform an inventive prison break, such as by flinging the pile of boulders to their target rather than ferrying a few chips at a time.

    Western Animation 
  • The Simpsons episode "Kill The Alligator And Run" sees the entire family (yes, even Maggie) sentenced by the State of Florida to forced labor on a chain gang after Homer kills an alligator named "Captain Jack" (the Florida town's most famous resident) and addresses the jury at their trial as "Drunken Hicks."
  • Lucky from King of the Hill has a grandfather who knew of a buried treasure in a forest that he found when he was an inmate working on a chain gang who was later sentenced to the electric chair, or, as Lucky put it, "A pastor" on a "church trip" who later "went on to be with the Lord."
  • Even Mickey Mouse was on a chain gang, in the 1930 cartoon "The Chain Gang" (notable for being the first appearance of Pluto).
  • Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog had a story where Sonic was sentenced to a chain gang with heavy characterizations of Southern US Prisons.
  • Seen in the Flip the Frog short "Jail Bird."
  • Family Guy:
    • In the episode "Holy Crap," Peter has kidnapped the Pope by posing as his driver and he drives the Pope Mobile past one of these. The Pope doesn't realize anything is wrong and keeps waving at everything, including a chain gang, parodying Cool Hand Luke:
    Luke: (takes his shirt off) Taking it off there, boss.
    Guard: Taking it off there, Luke.
    Luke (wipes sweat off his face) Wiping it off there, boss
    Guard: Wiping it off there, Luke.
    Luke: (waves at the Pope) Waving at the Pope there, boss.
    Guard: Waving at the Pope there, Luke.
    • In another episode, Peter and friends become a chain gang after being arrested by Corrupt Hicks in the South.
  • The Ren & Stimpy Show: Ren and Stimpy's job as pixies in "Pixie King" is more or less this, especially since they're whipped by policemen if they slack off for even a second.
    Stimpy: Kissin' dew drops here, boss!
  • Johnny Bravo had a parody of this in an episode where he is in prison. He is assigned to break rocks into little rocks, then glue the little rocks back into big rocks, and then break them back into little rocks. the last step was what drove him to madness.
  • On CatDog, characters are seen breaking blocks of chlorine tabs for violating the rules at the public pool.
  • On Rocko's Modern Life, Rocko's car is apparently part of one of these when he gets impounded. (And Prison Raped by a big purple truck.)
  • In an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants, Mrs. Puff gets sent to prison, and works on one of these, while Patrick and Spongebob disguise themselves as rocks to try to help her break out. She doesn't want to be free (because she doesn't have to deal with Spongebob anymore), and the prison guards think she's insane.
  • Happens to Daffy and Bugs in The Looney Tunes Show episode "Jailbird and Jailbunny".
  • A flashback in the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic episode "The Crystal Empire, Part 1" shows the Crystal Ponies chained together in this manner during the reign of King Sombra.

Alternative Title(s): Chain Gang


Example of: