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"All day long they work so hard,

Till the Sun is goin' down,

Working on the highways and byways,

And wearing, wearing a frown.

You hear them moanin' their lives away,

Then you hear somebody say,

'That's the sound of the men,

'Working on the chain gang'."
Sam Cooke, "Chain Gang"

A group of prisoners are shackled together, usually at the ankles, to perform acts of grueling physical labor, such as digging ditches, building or cleaning roads, and chipping stone, as a form of punishment.

Occasionally characters on a chain gang may attempt to make an escape while shackled together. This necessitates the escapees' efforts to find a means to break their shackles as well as cooperate with one another until they find a way to remove them — something that they usually learn "the hard way" after chained individuals try to run in opposite directions, possibly even running around different ends of a lamppost or similar structure which will immediately stop them dead in their tracks.

Working on the Chain Gang is Older Than Radio and is very much Truth in Television, although inmates are no longer chained together. The punishment was very commonplace in Southern US states up until the mid-1950s but has since become everything but a Dead Horse Trope, with only a single county in Arizona (Maricopa) and Florida (Wakulla) being places that still makes use of chain gangs, although inmates serving on these ones aren't shackled together anymore. Nowadays, chain gangs mostly just exist in period pieces in media that involve prisoners in the early half of the 20th Century. "Community service" often involves similar tasks but leave the people doing it looking indistinguishable from volunteers or paid public employees.

See Also: Chained Heat which, while usually occurring between only two characters--and not necessarily prisoners--bound to each other, can be expanded here to apply to even larger groups, if need be. In more fantastic films, this will be a feature of the Galley Slave.

Examples of Working on the Chain Gang include:


  • Sleepwalker fought one group of villains called "The Chain Gang" who took this trope to the extreme, being four convicts who gained superpowers while chained together and who had to stay chained together for their powers to work.
  • Batman foes the Trigger Twins were working on a chain gang when they were sprung by woman claiming to be their sister in Robin Annual #6.


  • The classic movie I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (pictured) is about an innocent man who becomes Exactly What It Says on the Tin.
  • Take the Money and Run sees the main character sentenced to work on a chain gang after an unsuccessful bank robbery. One day, his gang decides to make a break for freedom. Hilarity Ensues.
  • O Brother, Where Art Thou? begins with Ulysses, Pete, and Delmar escaping from this while chained to each other. Pete, at one point, is recaptured and put back to work on the chain gang and has to be broken out of prison again.
  • Cool Hand Luke worked on one in-between several prison breaks.
  • Life (not to be confused with the short-lived TV show with the same name) stars Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence as two men sentenced to life in prison for a crime they didn't commit who end up on a chain gang.
  • The opening of 48 HRS shows a chain gang in the desert.
  • There's one featured at the beginning of The Green Mile, as well.
  • The Defiant Ones is about two convicts with a mutual hatred for one another who escape from a chain gang while shackled to each other.
  • Spartacus opens with the title character cracking rocks in the hot Thracian sun.
  • In the beginning of Next Friday, Debo and his sidekick escaped prison heading to Craig's house for revenge and both are chained together. They tried to break the chain with a brick but later broke it when approaching in front of Craig and his father's truck leaving the city.
  • In The Shawshank Redemption, the corrupt Warden Norton uses the fact that a chain gang is essentially cheap slave labor to undercut local businesses... and then starts taking bribes from those businesses to keep his chain gangs at the prison rather than out working.


  • In Les Misérables, Valjean and Chenildieu become friends for several years while on on a chain gang.
  • In Richard Wright's autobiography Black Boy, one of his memories from his childhood involves him mistaking a chain gang for a row of elephants.
  • The movie I'm A Fugitive From A Chain Gang was based on the nonfiction book I Am a Fugitive From A Georgia Chain Gang by Robert E. Burns.

Live Action TV

  • Ben from Carnivale escaped from a chain gang before the beginning of the series, and in the first episode is still wearing a broken iron manacle around his ankle. What he did to get there is never revealed to the audience, other than that he's wanted for murder.


  • Sam Cooke's song "Chain Gang" (quoted above) was the second-biggest hit of his career (peaking at No. 2 in the US, No. 9 in the UK), as well as being the Trope Namer.
  • "Back On The Chain Gang" is one of The Pretenders' most well-known songs as well as makes a Shout-Out to the Trope Namer.
  • "I'm Free From The Chain Gang Now" by Johnny Cash.

Music Video

  • The video for AC/DC's "Jailbreak" features one.
  • "Deliverance" by Bubba Sparxxx starts off this way.


  • The Emperor Jones: Jones was sentenced to a chain gang for murder. He escaped after killing his overseer with a shovel.

Theme Parks

  • At one Venezuelan Theme Park, "La Venezuela de Antier" (Old-Timey Venezuela), all the cleaning employees are dressed as such, with the security employees wearing 1930's State Police uniforms, leaving some Unfortunate Implications.

Video Games

  • The fourth case of Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations features Terry Fawles, who dresses like a chain gang member and even wears a ball and chain. Except nobody else in the game ever does this, so the odd implication that he chose to dress up like that.

Western Animation

  • The Simpsons episode "Kill The Alligator And Run" sees the entire family (yes, even Maggie) sentenced by the State of Florida to forced labor on a chain gang after Homer kills an alligator named "Captain Jack" (the Florida town's most famous resident) and addresses the jury at their trial as "Drunken Hicks."
  • Lucky from King of the Hill has a grandfather who knew of a buried treasure in a forest that he found when he was an inmate working on a chain gang who was later sentenced to the electric chair, or, as Lucky put it, "A pastor" on a "church trip" who later "went on to be with the Lord."
  • Even Mickey Mouse was on a chain gang, in the 1930 cartoon "The Chain Gang" (notable for being the first appearance of Pluto).
  • The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog had a story where Sonic was sentenced to a chain gang with heavy characterizations of Southern US Prisons.
  • The ending of Robin Hood sees Prince John, Sir Hiss, and The Sheriff of Nottingham put to work in one of these.
  • Seen in the Flip the Frog short "Jail Bird."
  • In the Family Guy episode "Holy Crap," Peter has kidnapped the Pope by posing as his driver and he drives the Pope Mobile past one of these. The Pope doesn't realize anything is wrong and keeps waving at everything, including a chain gang, parodying Cool Hand Luke:

 Luke: (takes his shirt off) Taking it off there, boss.

Guard: Taking it off there, Luke.

Luke (wipes sweat off his face) Wiping it off there, boss

Guard: Wiping it off there, Luke.

Luke: (waves at the Pope) Waving at the Pope there, boss.

Guard: Waving at the Pope there, Luke.

  • Ren and Stimpy's job as pixies in "Pixie King" is more or less this, especially since they're whipped by policemen if they slack off for even a second.

  Stimpy: Kissin' dew drops here, boss!

  • Johnny Bravo had a parody of this in an episode where he is in prison.
  • On Cat Dog, characters are seen breaking blocks of chlorine tabs for violating the rules at the public pool.
  • On Rocko's Modern Life, Rocko's car is apparently part of one of these when he gets impounded.
  • In an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants, Mrs. Puff gets sent to prison, and works on one of these, while Patrick and Spongebob disguise themselves as rocks to try to help her break out. She doesn't want to be free (because she doesn't have to deal with Spongebob anymore), and the prison guards think she's insane.