From the Archives: Photographer Brian Smale joins the Chain Gang

In 1995 the state of Alabama brought back the archaic use of prison chain gangs, and photographer Brian Smale was there. Assigned by SPIN magazine, he and writer Mark Schone spent three days in the stifling Alabama heat to tell the story of men chained together and sent out to work along the highways.

“Most of these guys, they weren’t killers. They maybe missed a parole meeting or got caught with drugs. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could subject another human to this treatment,” remembers Brian. Inmates who refused to work would be forced to spend the sweltering day in a “Mexican Jail,” a concrete and chain link cell with jagged rocks embedded in the floor that made it impossible to sit down, often deprived of water or toilets.
“The conditions seemed to me a lot like torture,” Brian says. “I met a couple of the guys in the exercise yard – the commissioner had removed all the exercise equipment so the guys showed me how they improvised, using a sewer grate for weightlifting.” In 2001, four of the inmates successfully sued the state with the help of the Southern Poverty Law Center, ending the modern era of Alabama chain gangs.
“I loved working with SPIN magazine,” Brian recalls. “They gave me a ton of freedom. It was usually just me and a small, battery-powered flash, working alone. I shot a number of stories in the 80s and 90s along similar themes: killers, klansmen, gangsters, skinheads. So I guess I was a good fit for chain gangs.”
These days, Brian is based in Seattle, where he lives with his wife and kids and shoots for a number of big name, high-tech and corporate clients. “There are definitely fewer gangsters,” he says. “Which I sort of miss.”

You can see more of Brian’s highly regarded people & places photography here.

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