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Moving the chain gang

Innovative Maricopa County reform aims to keep area clean - and sober

Male chain gang workers wear pink underwear, black-and-white striped pants, and pink T-shirts. Male chain gang workers wear pink underwear, black-and-white striped pants, and pink T-shirts. (Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By Stan Grossfeld
Globe Staff / February 2, 2008

GLENDALE, Ariz. - When they talk about moving the chains here in the shadows of the Super Bowl, they don't mean a third-down completion from Tom Brady to Randy Moss.

It just means the Maricopa County DUI chain gangs - both male and female - are out picking up debris a couple of long touchdown passes from University of Phoenix Stadium, where the Patriots meet the Giants tomorrow.

Shackled and chained in groups of five, they toil in the mid-morning sun raking the desert and hand-pulling weeds that have sprouted from recent rains. The women don't even know about the football chain crews; they've got other problems.

"I've never heard of moving the chains," says Maeve Blanco, serving time for fraud and violation of probation.

Two miles away on Glendale Avenue, 17 men - mostly serving time for driving while intoxicated - wear pink underwear, black-and-white striped pants, and pink T-shirts emblazoned with "Clean(ing) and Sober." Two of the inmates hold a sign that reads, "The Sheriff says . . . Drive and Drink. You'll Wear Pink."

That would be Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the Springfield, Mass., native who likes to be known as America's Toughest Sheriff. Arpaio started the male chain gang in 1995 and currently has the only female chain gang unit in the country. He gained national notoriety when he installed a pink neon vacancy sign outside his Tent City desert jail in 1996 and forced inmates to wear pink underwear and eat "mystery meat." Human rights groups have been outspoken in their criticism of his policies.

But here motorists honk and wave their approval.

"Another one of our fans," says Maricopa County detention officer G.X. Crux, who denies that chain gangs are cruel and inhumane. "The majority of [the prisoners] like being on the chain. They like coming out. Think about it - you're locked up. Wouldn't you like to be out here?"

Larry Callis, a 19-year-old serving a 120-day sentence for DUI, says, "It's all a publicity stunt. Everyone else pretty much knows it. Even the DOs [detention officers] tell us the same thing. They tell us to come out here and act like you're working so the cameras can catch you."

With 4,786 accredited media members in town focused on Tom Brady's high ankle sprain, Callis knows nobody cares about his shackled foot. When he moves the chain, nobody applauds.

Callis says walking in synch with the other chain gang members is painful. "When you're walking and they're not keeping up with you, you pull on the chain and just about break an ankle. You come back in and your ankles are all scarred up."

He glances quickly at the site of Super Bowl XLII. The stadium gleams in the sun like a flying saucer.

"I wish I could be there instead of right here," he says softly.

According to informal polling of the prisoners, not a single member of the male chain gang is rooting for the Patriots.

The reasons:

"We just don't like the Patriots, man."

"Spygate."

"Yeah!"

"Spygate."

"West Coast, NFC."

"I'm just rooting for the Giants to prevent the perfect season," says Fred James, serving a probation violation. "Nothing's perfect."

Sheriff Joe's press office says the crews are working close to the Super Bowl site to warn fans not to drink and drive. He has promised "humorous signs," including one that reads: "Ladies, horizontal stripes will make you look fat! So don't drink & drive." But at least one of the signs is used by an inmate for shade.

As a TV crew arrives, Maricopa County detention officer Deana Lopez, carrying a 12-gauge shotgun on her back, denies this is all a publicity stunt.

"We are out working every day," she says. "It not only helps the community pick up garbage, it's therapeutic."

Blanco sounds almost Belichickian when she spouts the virtues of five women chained together. "It teaches you teamwork, for sure. You just have to learn to deal with it. If one falls, we all fall. United we stand, divided we fall.

"A publicity stunt? I don't think so. It keeps you straight. I don't want to do this again."

The women stop work when one digs up a large bone in the desert.

"Call forensics, this looks human," shouts one.

It is a bizarre scene. In the background is the NFL Experience Ferris wheel, the massive parking lots soon to be filled with partying fans outside the domed stadium.

Of the 17 women clad in black-and-white "Cool Hand Luke" attire, not one is a football fan.

Just ask them about Tom Brady.

"Who the hell is that?" says Vanessa Vacaneri, serving time for credit card fraud. "I'm a NASCAR fan. I don't know who Tom Brady is. I don't like football."

Vacaneri wipes the sweat from her brow and makes sure an officer is out of earshot.

"We're pretty much slaves," she says. "We get two meals a day and we're hungry all the time. We have five people in our cell and one on the floor. There's rats on the floor, rats in the kitchens. All we get to eat is a sack lunch of mysterious ostrich booty. It's nasty."

And Vacaneri doesn't care who wins.

"I'm not much of a football fan, but I wouldn't mind being out there," she acknowledges. "I wouldn't mind eating something good for once. Leftovers is good, yeah. Oh yeah, and then we gotta go clean up that mess. That's pathetic. We've got to clean up that Super Bowl."

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