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Arizona's All-Female Chain Gang

Photographer: Jim Lo Scalzo


It’s a scene reminiscent of the Deep South at the turn of the 20th century: a dozen prisoners in pinstripes working by the side of the road, their legs shackled together and their brows dripping with sweat. Yet this is present-day Phoenix, and the prisoners are all women.


With a few exceptions, chain gangs were abandoned in the U.S. by 1955. But Arizona’s Maricopa County, which includes metropolitan Phoenix, reintroduced the practice in 1995, and today the county runs the only all-female chain gang in the country. Women volunteer for the duty, looking to break the boredom of prison life. Most are in for minor convictions—a Driving under the Influence (DUI) sentence, a probation violation—and are housed at the Tent City: a collection of surplus military tents erected next to Maricopa County’s Estrella Jail to ease overcrowding.


The "chain girls," as they call themselves, gather at 6 a.m., when detention officers drive them to that day’s work site, a local park to pick up trash, a highway roadside to pull weeds, or even a county cemetery to help bury the indigent. Though summer temperatures in Phoenix rise above 45 degrees Celsius, inmates volunteer eagerly. "It’s worth it just to get out for a few hours," says Mickey Haas, who is serving time for a DUI. Fellow chain girl Honi Simmons agrees, adding: "It comes with a good story. I don’t think people will ever believe I was in a chain gang."