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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"

Describin' the trope here, boss.

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 in the United States soon after the Civil War (1865) when slavery was abolished. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution banned involuntary servitude "except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted", leaving a legal loophole by which unpaid labor could still be exploited. African-Americans and out-of-staters were particularly vulnerable to being sentenced to hard labor for the state or local government.

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.

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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    Anime & Manga 
  • One Piece:
    • Impel Down's Level 4, the Blazing Hell, contains a massive fire at the bottom that is constantly being fueled by the prisoners, who are forced to do so by means of carrying logs the size of tree trunks on their backs.
    • Wano Country features the Prisoner Mine in the Udon region. Used as a prison to contain people captured by the Beast Pirates, the prisoners are forced to mine large blocks of stone in exchange for meal tickets. It also serves as a weapons factory, where prisoners are similarly forced to craft weapons for the Beast Pirates. Devil Fruit users like Luffy, Kid and Caribou are chained with Seastone cuffs, preventing them from using their abilities and sapping their physical strength. Finally, while the wardens and jailers have absolute authority over the prisoners, rulebreakers are not immediately killed; they are given punishments designed to make them suffer for prolonged periods of time. The idea is that the stronger prisoners are punished or forced to work until their spirits break, whereupon they are expected to pledge allegiance to Kaido and join his crew.

    Comic Books 
  • Batman foes the Trigger Twins were working on a chain gang when they were sprung by woman claiming to be their sister in Robin (1993) Annual #6.
  • Jonah Hex: Jonah ends up working on a chain gang when he is sent undercover into the state penitentiary.
  • In Kid Colt, Outlaw #118, Kid Colt is duped into being arrested and sent to state prison. Once there he find himself working on a chain gang alongside three villains he had sent there, "Bull" Barton, Dr. Danger, and the Scorpion.
  • Lucky Luke:
    • While not shackled together (they get a ball and chain instead), breaking rocks is the most common activity for criminals.
    • One lifer took to making them into small cubes.
    • The prison once got a guard dog that prevented the prisoners from stopping, leading to the prison having to order more rocks.
    • During one of Joe's manic "I HATE LUCKY LUKE!" outbursts, a prison guard chided him for the rocks he was breaking as it was costing the penitentiary money.
  • 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.
  • 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 (1973) 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 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.
  • Cool Hand Luke worked on one in-between several prison breaks.
  • Death Rides a Horse: The first shot of Ryan following the 15 year Time Skip is the irons being struck from his leg as he is released from the chain gang; showing that he has spent the intervening years in prison.
  • The Defiant Ones is about two fugitives from a chain gang, their flight impeded by the fact that they are still chained together at the ankle and they utterly hate each other.
  • 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.
  • 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 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.
  • Happy, Texas begins with the protagonists' escape from a chain gang.
  • Hell's Highway (1932) is another classic prison expose film about prisoners working hard labor on a chain gang.
  • 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.
  • Life (1999) 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 Man Who Came Back: After the Kangaroo Court railroads Paxton into the state prison, he is put to work on the chain gang; where he immediately begins formulating an escape plan.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • In Le Professionnel, black ops French agent Josselin Beaumont is betrayed by his government as he was on a mission to assassinate the President of the (fictional) African country of Malagawi. He goes through a Kangaroo Court and gets condemned to forced labor at a penal colony, where he has to break and transport stones, and makes a friend there. They're not chained however, which allows them to kill the guards (one with a pickaxe) and escape later on.
  • 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 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.
  • 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?
  • Spartacus opens with the title character cracking rocks in the hot Thracian sun.
  • In Sullivan's Travels, Sullivan is sentenced to a chain gang when he's arrested and convicted for assaulting a train officer.
  • 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.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • In Les Misérables, Valjean and Chenildieu become friends for several years while on on a chain gang.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • A variation in The Day of the Triffids. Bill and Josella are kidnapped by Wilfred Coker's group who want to help the newly-blinded populace, so they're chained to a group of blind people to help them gather food. Given that London is plagued by man-eating triffids and ruthless armed scavengers, this causes its own problems for the protagonist.
  • Horrifically described in Beloved. Paul D was sentenced to one sometime after leaving Sweet Home and before arriving in Delaware and later Ohio.

    Live Action TV 
  • Ben from Carnivŕle escaped from a chain gang before the beginning of the series, and in the first episode is still wearing a broken iron manacle around his ankle. What he did to get there is never revealed to the audience, other than that he's wanted for murder.
  • Dead Man's Gun: In "Ties That Bind", a farmer is arrested for a crime he didn't commit, and is put on a chain gang.
  • The Dukes of Hazzard episode "Cool Hands Luke and Bo" has the title characters arrested and placed on one of these.
  • In Quantum Leap, Sam leapt into a prisoner who was subject to this. He was there to establish another prisoner's innocence and expose the fact that the warden had been keeping them there for too long (Sam's character was only supposed to be serving a nine-month sentence but had been there for years).
  • The tap dancers in the opening credits of The Slammer.

  • 9lokknine also has a song called "Chain Gang." The chorus is the cleanest part of it.
  • Boney M's "No More Chain Gang."
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • "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.
  • Josh White and his Carolinians' "Chain Gang Bound."
  • AC/DC's "Jailbreak" mentions the protag "breakin' the rocks on the chain gang," before he decides to run.

    Music Video 

    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 1930s State Police uniforms.

    Video Games 
  • 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 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.
  • The fourth case of Phoenix Wright: 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.
  • 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 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.

    Western Animation 
  • Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog had a story where Sonic was sentenced to a chain gang with heavy characterizations of Southern US Prisons.
  • Beetlejuice: In the episode "Snugglejuice," Beetlejuice gets in trouble for a prank gone too far. He is sent to Neither-Neither-Land, the Neitherworld's jail system: a Candyland-like environment where prisoners are "rehabilitated" into cute, sweet, playful creatures. When he first arrives, he's made to work on the "daisy chain gang."
  • On CatDog, characters are seen breaking blocks of chlorine tabs for violating the rules at the public pool.
  • 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.
  • 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."
  • Looney Tunes
  • Happens to Daffy and Bugs in The Looney Tunes Show episode "Jailbird and Jailbunny".
  • Even Mickey Mouse was on a chain gang, in the 1930 cartoon "The Chain Gang" (notable for being the first appearance of Pluto).
  • 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.
  • 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!
  • 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.)
  • 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."
    • In "Lisa the Skeptic" Jimbo, Dolph and Kearney are depicted this way while breaking rocks in a mandatory field trip to an archeological dig.
  • 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. To make matters worse, moments later, another prisoner smashes the rock disguises of Spongbob and Patrick to bits.
    Spongebob: There goes our deposit on these costumes.

Alternative Title(s): Chain Gang