The hard-faced guard stood by the side of the road with his shotgun ready. The steel rims of his dark glasses glinted in the sun as he watched eight convicts swinging pick axes in a desultory rhythm through the thick summer air. Sweat ran in streams down the sides of their faces.
It was a scene that could not help but bring to mind old chain gang movies. ("I had one man apply for a job," said a correctional officer, "and all the questions he asked about it were straight out of 'Cool-Hand Luke.'") But it was a scene every workday on some Virginia roads, sometimes as close to the nation's capital as Shirley Highway within view of the Washington Monument.
Over the years the State Convict Road Force, established in 1906 by the Virginia legislature, has grown into a curious blend of the anachronistic and the progressive.
Unit 26 in Haymarket, for instance, is still called a temporary or "stick" camp, a name left over from the days when such units were packed up and moved along with the progress of a new road. But Unit 26 has been sitting in the same grassy field 40 miles from downtown Washington for the past 20 years.
Behind the 12-foot fence, inside the oft-painted blue and white dormitory, things look much the same as they did in 1958. The guards still sit in "the cage" protected from prisoners by old chain link fence. To one side of them are the minimum security "trusties," to the other, behind two padlocked doors, are the "gun men," medium security inmates serving time on felony charges.
But a color television set is at each end of the dorm and near the beds, where once there were chains, stereo headphones hang now.
Among some of the old-timers, the guards and foremen who have been working with road gangs for upward of 20 years, there is a certain nostalgia for the old days. That was when a man who did not work or broke the rules knew about what he could expect.
"Back when they had all that punishment, Lord they really worked hard," said L. W. McDonald, a Virginia Highway Department foreman. "If they didn't they'd lay 'em across a barrel and give 'em a couple of licks."
Cpl. Roger L. Nicholson has been a correctional officer for only a couple of years, but he remembers too.
"My father's been doing this - it'll be 35 years in August, I guess," Nicholson said one day last week as he sat by the soft drink machine on the porch of the little administration office. "I practically grew up on one of these places.
"In the old days they'd have to have a doctor present to check the man's health - see how many licks he could take. They had a big strap about so wide (six inches) and this long (30 inches) made out of leather.
"My father would tell about how the doctor would say 15 licks and they'd get up around 10 and he'd lose count and they'd have to start all over again."
Nobody is given licks anymore. If a prisoner refuses to work or causes trouble he will lose "good time" he has built up. This threat in itself is a strong incentive, built up, since an inmate can take as much as four months off his sentence every year he behaves.
On a road near Middleburg the other day several inmates from Unit 26 were patching potholes caused by the week's storms. As they took their half-hour lunch breaks they sat in the shade near "the rack" - the wooden cage they ride to work in each day.
When a stranger approached, the guard, Bobby Brewster, hefted his 12-guage shot gun and unshapped the holster of his revolver. Asked if he had ever shot a man, Brewster, 22, said no. "I pray to God I never do. But I'm sure if I had to I could."
A few yards away (the guard is required to keep his distance) the eight inmates appeared, by contrast, perfectly relaxed.
"I don't want no hassle, said 24-year-old Henry Brooks, who is serving 16 months for felonious assault. "I just want to do my bit and get out of here."
"The works not too hard," said Daniel Marshall, 18. "It's better than sitting in jail."
Men who are not used for the road quota of 50 prisoners a day - divided into gangs with a maximum of eight inmates per gang - are assigned to yard or kitchen work around Unit 26. So none, in fact, sits around.
"This is the worst camp I've ever been on," said 19-year-old Robert Burruss."They ain't got no programs. This place don't offer you nothin'. It frustrates you. Make you evil, man."
Unit 26, because it is a "temporary" camp, does not offer any job training or, at present, educational programs. (There was a volunteer teacher, but she left last month.)
Unit 30 in Fairfax offers considerably more. A "permanent" camp, it is built of brick and mortar and looks like a mini-penitentiary across West Ox Road from the Super 29 Drive-In. It provides inmates with a number of educational opportunities such as high school equivalency and some job training courses.
On the other hand, Superintendent John B. Taylor said he does not "have that much confidence in the effectiveness of the programs to rehabiliate people." Taylor, 27, who has a master's degree in criminology, said he regards such courses basically as "constructive use of leisure time."
Given such a situation, Taylor said he thinks work gangs are as good a use of a state's resources as other programs. "I don't think that because other state systems don't have them, that means they don't think they're good.
Taylor said that only a handful of southern states, "maybe five or six," use prisoners on their roads, but "part of that is because, unlike Virginia, a lot of northern states long ago made big capital investments in monster instituations."
The smaller, more numerous, camps in Virginia, Taylor suggested, are more flexible, personal and in many cases safer for the prisoners. "The larger and more bureaucratic an institution is usually the more dangerous it is."
The road gang system also provides economic pluses for the corrections department, according to Taylor and to several corrections officials in Richmond.
While the men are paid between 25 cents and $1 a day for their labor, state officials say that the Virginia Highway Department pays the Department of Corrections approximately $2 million annually for the services of the 1,067 prisoners who work on the roads.
Whatever the advantages of the system, however, it was clearly the product of an era when most roads ran through rural areas. The burgeoning of suburbia has created difficulties for such amps as Unit 30 and escapes are the worst of these problems.
In May, near Great Falls, a 24-year-old inmate took off into the woods nearby, and has yet to be caught.The guard squeezed off a shot and missed. (Guard in populated areas carry only pistols.) Dogs were brought out to search for the inmate, but by then, apparently, he was long gone.
"The problem with Fairfax," said Taylor, "is that there are so many roads. When a man runs, you can't assume he's still on foot. A car can be waiting, and anyway the standard blues (blue jeans and a t-shirt) are just standard apparel for hitchhikers around here."
Taylor said he has had six escapes from road gangs in the 1 1/2 years he has been superintendent, three last spring and three this spring. "Rabbit time, the oldtimers call it. They say they get rabbit blood in them."
"You mess with 'em long enough, you gonna lose one of 'em," said Lt. G. W. Ruckman at the Haymarket camp. But he said he has not had any "gun men" escape off the road recently.