The women incarcerated in Corinth, Mississippi, have a phrase for it: “sitting it out.” We have another name for it: “debtors’ prison.”
Since the 1970s, the Supreme Court has been clear that it’s unconstitutional to jail people simply because they can’t afford to pay fines and fees.
But in states across the South — and across the country — that’s exactly what cash-strapped municipalities are doing.
Take Glenn Chastain. He owed $1,200 to the city of Corinth for expired vehicle tags. Because he missed a hearing, he was denied the chance to pay a partial fine. He spent 48 days in jail.
Jamie Tillman, without a lawyer, admitted to a public intoxication charge punishable by a $100 fine. She didn’t even have $10 — and had no family member she could call for help. But a judge told her $25 would be knocked off her fine for every day she stayed in jail, so that’s what she did until her balance was down to $0.
“I thought, ‘Because we’re poor, because we’re of a lower class, we aren’t allowed real freedom,’” Tillman recalled to Matthew Shaer for The New York Times. “And it was the worst feeling in the world.”
We opened an investigation into Corinth’s practice of jailing of low-income defendants in 2017. Micah West and Sara Wood, lawyers in our economic justice practice group, told The New York Times about court sessions “where defendants were permitted to use a landline phone to make a final plea for the cash that would set them free.” As Shaer describes:
The space amounted to an earthly purgatory: Secure the money, and you were saved. Fail, and you’d be sent to jail. “All around us, people would be crying or yelling, getting more and more desperate,” Wood recalled.
That October, she watched a 59-year-old man named Kenneth Lindsey enter the office, his lean arms hanging lank by his side, his face gaunt and pale. Lindsey had been in court for driving with an expired registration, but he hadn’t been able to afford the fines: He was suffering from hepatitis C and liver cancer, and he had spent the very last of his savings on travel to Tupelo for a round of chemotherapy. Until his next state disability check arrived, he was broke. “Can you help?” Lindsey whispered into the phone.
A few seconds of silence passed. “All right, then. Thanks anyway.”
Finally, around 1:45 p.m., Lindsey managed to get through to his sister. She barely had $100 herself, but she promised to drive it over after her shift was through.
Wood caught up with Lindsey in the parking lot later that day, and after identifying herself, asked if he would consider being interviewed by the S.P.L.C. “I don’t know,” Lindsey said, studying the ground. But soon enough, he called Wood to say he had changed his mind. “I’ve been paying these sons of bitches all my life,” he told her. “It’s time someone did something about it.”
We sued Corinth with the MacArthur Justice Center in 2017. A month later, Corinth ordered its jail emptied of anyone incarcerated for nonpayment of fines.
And last year, after we lobbied Mississippi, both houses of the state Legislature unanimously passed a bill prohibiting any resident from being jailed for a failure to pay court costs or fines. It went into effect in July.
But wealth-based detention is far from solved.
“This is a massive problem, and it’s not confined to the South. It’s national,” the SPLC’s Sam Brooke told Shaer.
Even in Corinth, Lindsey is still trapped in a web of arrests and court fees, nearly all of which he can trace back to his vehicle. His registration and driver’s license are expired, but to pay off those expiration fees, he needs to drive to work.
“I would estimate that I’ve spent a quarter of the last year behind bars,” he told Shaer. Could he calculate exactly what he owed? “$10,000?” he responded. “$11,000?” The way he said it, it might as well have been a million dollars. “I ain’t never going to pay it down,” he said. “Never, ever. I’m going to be paying it down until I die.”
P.S. Here are some other pieces we think are valuable this week:
- Immigrant children are being used as ‘bait’ to arrest sponsors, class action lawsuit alleges by Angelina Chapin for Huffington Post
- Welcome to El Paso by Danny Lyon for The New York Review of Books
- These Atlanta neighbors no longer wanted to live on Confederate Avenue. Here’s what they did about it by Dakin Andone for CNN
- This isn’t a border wall: It’s a monument to white supremacy by Bryan Lee Jr. for City Lab
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Photo Jessica Dimmock