The Daily Southerner, Tarboro, NC

January 22, 2013

Life on the Chain Gang in the early 20th century


The Daily Southerner

TARBORO — In the 1920’s and 30’s, the workers on the chain gangs in the South worked all day while chained together and got locked up in steel cage-like portable jails at night.

William “Bill” Fillmore, owner of Fillmore Plantation speculates being locked in the portable jails wasn’t fun for the prisoners. The seven portable jails on his property on Nobles Mill Pond Road are made of steel and the majority measure 18 feet long and 7 feet tall.

“I’m sure it was hot and uncomfortable. [You had] the mosquitoes and the bugs and the humidity and you didn’t have any privacy, night after night,” said Fillmore. “I don’t think it was a very friendly way to be a prisoner. There wasn’t a lot of sympathy for prisoners back then.”

 “They’d stack a whole bunch of prisoners in there,” he said, estimating each jail held 18 inmates. The portable jail cells are now used as storage for Fillmore’s tools.

 “My grandfather, Col. William H. Fillmore, bought them as surplus to put corn in them in the 1950’s,” Fillmore said. “We had so much fun playing in these things as kids. We’d lock each other in there.”

Manly Jail Works of Dalton, Ga. manufactured the portable jails on wheels, which were sold “from 1908 into the early 1930’s,” said Judson Manly, in an article published in the “Dalton Daily Citizen” on Nov. 8, 2009.

“Prior to 1908, going back to when Sherman burned down the state prison in Georgia, the state rented out prisoners,” Manly said. “You had to feed them, clothe them, guard them and take care of their medical needs. And you could work them 60 hours a week. My grandfather came up with the idea of a portable jail on wheels.”

In an article printed in the Raleigh News & Observer on Nov. 27, 1994, then-state prison superintendent Julian Mann estimated that the average convict on a chain gang in the early 1900’s could only expect to survive five years.

Manly said the media at the time referred to the portable jails as “paddy wagons.” Manly Jail Works touted itself as “the first and only steel jail works in the South.” The company has discontinued jail work and is now known as Manly Steel.

One day, Fillmore plans to donate the portable jails to a museum, but for now, the steel structures standing on Fillmore’s historic property are a testament to a nearly forgotten, but not obsolete, way of life for prisoners.

In recent news, CNN reported on Oct. 29, 2003 that Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Ariz. was running a female chain gang in which the prisoners worked seven days a week, slept in tents, and were only fed twice a day.

The more things change, the more they stay the same

The one thing about prison life that has remained the same is the wish for freedom and a life outside the confines of bars, whether it is a female prisoner in Edgecombe County’s jail annex wistfully looking out of a basement window or a member of a chain gang in the 1920’s hoping for an opportunity to break loose from the chains while working outdoors.

When asked whether the female inmates in the county’s jail annex ever get a chance to go outside and get some fresh air, Lt. Elijah Glass, county jail administrator, simply replied, “They don’t.” The only exception to that rule is when a judge orders work release for non-violent offenders.