NOVEMBER 1, 1994

ALEXANDER - Prisons in Alexander and Yadkin county hold grim reminders of the old chain gang days when inmates were housed in portable convict cages.

Of the dozens of cages used to haul inmate road crews back in the first part of this century, only two are known to exist in the state. Efforts are being made to restore the rusty cages at the Alexander and Yadkin prisons.

In August, the Community Resource Council for the Alexander Correctional Center arranged for the National Guard to forklift the cage out of mud and vines. The original three-inch concrete floor, a small toilet and bradded metal bars are all that remain of the prison cage where 12 convicts once slept.

Alexander Correctional Superintendent Fred Watkins found the cage in 1978 while walking the prison property. "Time has taken its toll on the cage," Watkins said. "They called it humane housing of the inmates back then."

"A bucket of disinfectant once or twice a month and a bucket of paint once a year will keep this cage clean, sanitary and vermin proof," an old ad for Manly Portable Convict Cages claims. "Officially endorsed by state and county prison boards all over the South."

The prison cage in Yadkin County, which slept 16 inmates, still has its wheels and the hitch for the two to four mules that pulled the cage. Brought from the prison unit in McLeansville in 1984, the prison cage was to be restored by Department of Transportation employees and displayed at the Spenser Transportation Museum in Spencer.

"We considered the condition and the expense and decided it wasn't feasible to restore," Yadkin Superintendent Eddie Shore said. "We would love to see it restored and on display for historical purposes."

Inmates were hauled in Portable Convict Cages from road site to road site up until the late 1930's. A heavy chain from one end of the cage to the other shackled the sleeping convicts at night. Two cages and their guards, as they were called then, would stay together from Monday until Friday. Guards slept in camps near the cages, thus the name "prison camp" which is still used today in referring to some of the smaller prison units in the state.

The portable cages sold for about $500 a piece. An advertisement from the 1920's for the Manly Jail Works out of Dalton, Georgia, quotes endorsements from six prison superintendents. One superintendent from Sampson County, J.E. Cole, was quoted as saying:

"I have been Superintendent of chain gang for ten years and unhesitatingly say that your portable cages are by far the safest, most convenient and most economical way to handle convicts that I have ever seen. We are not using any night guards at all."

N.C. Hughes, Jr. from Henderson said:

"As soon as we began to use your cages our men at once improved in health and spirits. They have proved themselves to be cool in summer, warm and well ventilated in the winter, and the men are much more comfortable than when housed in tents or stockade. The chief attraction of the cage to me is the possibility of practically perfect sanitation all the year round, which is of vital importance in maintaining a chain gang."

A heavy water-proof canvas was dropped over the sides of the cages at night for warmth. The Yadkin cage is 24 feet by 8 feet and has two flue holes for the stoves and a small area for an officer to sit with a shotgun. Inmates slept in bunks three high. The prison toilet had a tight fitting lid and removable galvanized soil bucket on the outside.

The superintendent of prisons from 1900 to 1909, Julian S. Mann asserted that the more than 1,200 prisoners on roadwork in forty counties operating chain gangs throughout North Carolina were the state's responsibility and the problems of neglect and cruelty were so serious that he alleged "the average life of a road convict is less than five years." He said that the present chain gang policy of our State cannot be defended and ought to be at once discontinued.

It wasn't until 1933 when the N.C. General Assembly authorized construction to build 100-man road camps throughout the state that the prison cages became obsolete.

Correction Secretary Franklin Freeman said, "At least one of these cages should be restored as a stark reminder of how far we have come in penology in this century."


History of North Carolina Prisons