No iron balls or stripes, but modern chain gangs get work out of convicts
By Dave Gathman email@example.com September 27, 2012 11:04PM
Inmates from McHenry County Jail pick up trash Monday along Sands Road in Crystal Lake. The duties given enable prisoners to be outside away from the confinement of the jail, and also helps out area communities. September 19, 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 16, 2012 3:15PM
ALGONQUIN TOWNSHIP — They’re not bound by any chains, or even handcuffs. They don’t wear red and white stripes or carry sledge hammers. The guard watching them mentions nothing about any “failure to communicate.”
But the orange jump suits on the four men picking up litter along Sands Road, and the word “INMATE” on their backs, unmistakably mark them as the modern-day counterpart to an old-time convict chain gang.
Since 2004, the McHenry County Corrections Facility has used volunteer prisoners to form a daily “inmate road crew.” The man in charge this day, Corrections Officer Ted Bihlmaier, says four prisoners plus one guard go out to help townships, villages and cities all over the county with whatever manual labor needs to be done.
When Harvard was setting up its annual Milk Days festival, a crew like this put up fences, moved picnic tables and garbage cans, and then picked up the trash left behind by the festgoers.
When an environmental group in Marengo held a drive to collect unused paint, another jail crew loaded that hazardous waste onto a truck.
When the county treasurer’s office needed a new walkway, orange-suited inmates moved sod and soil, then laid down crushed limestone, aggregate and flagstone.
Yet another assignment found a crew repainting steel guardrails.
But the most frequent chore, Bihlmaier says, is what these four fellows were doing one day this week in Algonquin Township — walking along roads that haven’t been “adopted” by anybody for the purpose of keeping them clean, and picking up trash and litter.
While they don’t get any time off from their sentence for the work and pay is minimal, Bihlmaier said more prisoners volunteer than he can use. To be eligible, a prisoner must have been already convicted and sentenced, not just awaiting trial; must have been convicted of a nonviolent crime; must be male; and must have no physical problems that could be aggravated.
The prisoners aren’t allowed to operate power machinery, but can use hand tools.
No ‘Groundhog Day’
Bihlmaier’s crew this day were are all white men age 35 to 43. Bihlmaier said the racial breakdown, if not the ages, represents the typical population of nonviolent inmates in this mostly white county.
Most of the four normally work in some construction-related trade.
A construction worker from Crystal Lake said he was in for 90 days for obstructing justice by not cooperating with a cop. An electrician from Fox Lake was sentenced to 180 days for driving under the influence, but expects to get out in half that time for good behavior. A plumber from Woodstock got 180 days for passing a bad check. The fourth man, from Woodstock, explained only that he was sentenced to 60 days for failure to pay a $2,000 fine.
The prisoners get $3 a day for about six hours of labor. But that’s not the main attraction, they agree. It’s the chance to get outside that jail, in the 60-degree sunshine, for six hours.
“Every day in that jail is ‘Groundhog Day’ — the same thing over and over,” said the plumber, referring to the Bill Murray movie shot in Woodstock in which a man is forced to relive the same day over and over.
“If I was back in the jail, I’d be sitting in a room all day with a TV and 30 other guys. I’m used to working outside,” said the justice-obstructer.
He said the only view of the outdoors from inside the jail comes through slit-like windows about 4 inches tall and 4 feet wide.
“One year there was flooding in McHenry and we filled sandbags,” Bihlmaier recalls. “After a storm came through last year, there was a fallen tree on every road in Woodstock. I used a chainsaw as we went around and moved downed limbs.”
No escape attempts
The sight of such a crew inevitably evokes memories of movies like “Cool Hand Luke,” Bihlmaier admits. “A lot of people ask, ‘Where’s your horse? Where’s your mirrored sunglasses?’”
He said nobody has ever tried to escape from the road crew, probably because they realize that the years in prison they could get for an escape attempt would not be worth evading the few weeks in jail they are now serving.
As the electrician descended into a deep ditch, he found some ironic litter — a 4-foot-square campaign sign, left over from an election four years ago, urging voters to support the man who then was campaigning against current Sheriff Keith Nygren.
The four workers were generally quiet, though one jibed another by saying, “Josh, I found your women’s panties.” They’re weren’t ready to turn into a barbershop quartet or to sing the kind of spirituals one might expect from a chain gang in the Old South. But the fine-payer recalled that “when one guy was out here, all he would do was sing. He wouldn’t shut up.”
Even more volunteer inmates find temporary jobs inside the jail, Bihlmaier said, washing laundry and cooking in the kitchen.
While the road crews go out only from April through October, the indoor jobs are available year-round — but provide no fresh air.