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America's only all-female chain gang toils in Phoenix heat

Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA

Inmate Julie Harper, center, marches with members of America's only all-female chain gang early in the morning at Estrella Jail in Phoenix, Arizona. Photos taken in May 2012 and made available to msnbc.com on June 28, 2012.

Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA

The chain gang work in 104 degree heat, hacking at weeds at Bartlett Lake.

Photos and text by Jim Lo Scalzo, European Pressphoto Agency — 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.

Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA

Kelly DeGrose, center, listens to a detention officer lecture them after a day's work on the chain gang.

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 monotony of jail life. Most are in for minor convictions - a 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. 

Previously on PhotoBlog: Rikers Island inmates graduate with high school diplomas

The "chain girls," as they call themselves, gather at 6 a.m., when detention officers drive them to that day's work site. It could be 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 can rise above 110 degrees, inmates volunteer with surprising eagerness.

"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."

Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA

Members of the chain gang line up for work early in the morning at Estrella Jail.

Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA

Members of the chain gang are seen in a bus driver's mirror en route to White Tanks Cemetery to help bury the indigent.

Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA

The chain gang help bury an unclaimed body at White Tanks Cemetery, an indigent burial site in the desert west of Phoenix.

Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA

Inmates Alma Madrigal, left, and Jennifer Thomas, right, help Lisa McCorvey roll up her sleeves before a day's work.

Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA

Members of the chain gang clean the dust off their boots after another day's work in the desert.