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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."

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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.

 

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Nosotros vamos a decidir. That’s the presidential election refrain coming from many American Latinos, a group of voters Michael Scherer explores in TIME’s cover story next week. Nearly 9% of all voters in 2012 will be Latino, up 26% from four years ago, according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. That figure will only continue to climb—per the Pew Hispanic Center, one in four children born in the U.S. is Latino, and every month, at least 50,000 Latino citizens turn 18.

TIME contract photographer Marco Grob spent a recent February weekend chronicling Latino voters in Phoenix, Ariz. His portfolio for the magazine is not just comprehensive—it is insightful and deep. The Swiss photographer, who is now based in New York City, previously photographed TIME’s Beyond 9/11: Portraits of Resilience, a multimedia project revealing testimonies of the national tragedy, as well memorable portraits of Lady Gaga and Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton for 2010′s TIME 100 issue.

True to form, Grob captured the essence of each Arizona face with a single camera click. He photographed deacons, dancers and Dreamers; nutrition undergrads, car aficionados and immigration activists; Mexicans, Hondurans and Guatemalans. “There were many unique challenges involved in this shoot,” says Grob, who photographed over 150 people on “three days on four different locations including a university, a local restaurant, an outdoor market and a Catholic church. The terms ‘Latino’ and ‘Latina’ have a vast identity of their own,” he continues, “so for the duration of this project we strove to break some of those stereotypes.”

If one sentiment unites these citizens, it is that they believe that their vote matters. TIME asked each person Grob photographed if he or she would vote in the upcoming election. Over and over again, the answer was a resounding yes. Many described voting as the ultimate civic duty. Others drew their determination from SB1070, a controversial immigration bill promoted by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer in 2010, and cited friends and family who cannot vote as their reason for political participation. Overall, they proclaimed that Latinos, more than ever, need to make their voice heard.

Marco Grob is a contract photographer for TIME. You can see his project Beyond 9/11: Portraits of Resilience here.

Elizabeth Dias is a reporter in TIME’s Washington bureau. Follow her on Twitter @elizabethjdias.

Read more: “Why Latino Voters will Swing The 2012 Presidential Election

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