Trashing Their Rights: Alabama town uses ‘debtors’ prison’ for people who fall behind on garbage bills
The stately Victorian cupola of the original Chambers County Courthouse casts a cold morning shadow over the statue of favorite son Joe Louis, the famed “Brown Bomber” boxer who hailed from rural LaFayette, Alabama. A few feet away, lumber trucks rumble through the town’s main drag, leaving the scent of pine and diesel drifting in their wake.
Nortasha Jackson, 49, who lives in the nearby town of Valley, is inside the modern courthouse addition, waiting patiently for her name to be called. Her attorney told her that the charges against her were going to be dropped, ending a months-long ordeal that started when she fell behind on her trash bill.
Even though the concept of “debtors’ prison” has been declared unconstitutional, the town of Valley was dragged into the spotlight for its practice of arresting people who could not pay their bills. In November, 82-year-old Martha Menefield was arrested for owing $77 for trash pickup. Her story went viral online, and national media outlets carried it through several news cycles because of how preposterous the situation sounded.
But Menefield’s case was not unusual. The city of Valley has been arresting its citizens for years over past-due trash bills, adding hundreds if not thousands of dollars to the owed amount in fines and court costs by the poorest of its residents.
Southern Poverty Law Center attorney Micah West, who represented Jackson in her fight against City Hall, said the practice is at best misguided, if not flatly illegal.
“The Alabama and federal constitutions prohibit prosecuting people simply because they cannot pay a garbage bill,” West said. “Although we are pleased that Ms. Jackson’s ordeal is over, the city of Valley is currently prosecuting other people for violating a statute that does not make nonpayment a crime. We ask officials to dismiss those charges, too, and to take proactive steps to ensure that people who fall behind on their trash bills are not unfairly punished for their poverty.”
Not surprisingly, those charged under the policy are predominantly people of color.
‘We got a warrant’
Jackson, who is on disability and holds a job as a cashier, was arrested at her home over the Thanksgiving weekend. When police arrived and told her she was going to be taken to jail, her first reaction was to laugh.
“I was like, ‘What you want?’ and they said, ‘We got a warrant,’” Jackson said. “I was like, ‘These people are actually going to arrest me for my trash.’”
For the three months she was in arrears, Jackson owed $60. But after the arrest, her costs skyrocketed.
“You’re missing work, you’re getting arrested, you’re having to find a bondsman, because you can’t use your property [for a bond],” Jackson said. “They said mine [her bail] was going to be $2,500. Who’s going to have $2,500 when you don’t have $20 to pay your trash bill?”
Before taking on her cashier’s position, Jackson was living solely on her disability payment of about $930 a month.
“You have to pay mortgage or rent, even if you are staying in public housing, you still have to pay from $300 to $500,” she said. “And then your light bill is $100, $150. Food – we’re not even going to talk about food. You got baloney sandwiches and peanut butter sandwiches. Which one you want? In the summertime, you might get a tomato sandwich. But that’s about it.”
Aside from the economic challenges, Jackson said she wanted her story told in hopes that the law could be changed so no one else has to go through what she did. But many have already followed her path. The racial disparity in arrests is even wider among older residents and residents arrested more than once for alleged failure to pay. Valley Police have arrested residents aged 70 and older at least 14 times; 13 of them — 93% — were Black. And Black people make up 73% of the 108 residents who have been arrested multiple times for alleged nonpayment.
That is not just a recent trend. An SPLC analysis of over 800 court cases shows that since 2004, 63% of City arrests for alleged failure to pay trash fees were of Black people. Further, 40% of arrests were of Black women.
‘I still ended up going to jail’
Shameka Williams said the disparity in the treatment between Black and white Valley customers plays out in real time.
“I went in to pay the trash bill, had all the money,” she recounted. “I stood around maybe about an hour waiting to pay and the lady kept saying the guy [from the solid waste department] was coming.”
Instead, two police officers arrived with a freshly signed warrant for her arrest.
“I’m like, ‘For what?’” Williams said. “And he said, ‘For the trash.’ And I said, ‘I’m here to pay the trash bill.’”
The officer said, however, that the warrant was already issued, even though Williams said it was signed while she was waiting to pay the overdue bill.
But Williams was not the only person there to pay an overdue bill that day.
“There was a lady there, a white lady, to pay her bill,” Williams said. “They took her money. She didn’t even have all the money. But I still ended up going to jail.”
She questioned the policy but to no avail.
“This is not right, what you are doing,” Williams recalls saying. “‘Is this even legal, what you are doing? I’m here to pay.’ But they didn’t want to hear the fact that I was there to pay.”
Even after clearing her debt and going to court, it took months — and advocacy from SPLC Senior Investigator Sakeena White — before Williams received a trash can and the city resumed trash pickup at her home.
‘You can’t put people in jail for a bill’
Terry Newman, a lifelong Valley resident, said he ended up in jail for five days after his trash bill went into arrears.
“All it was, the jail got some money out of it, and that’s it,” Newman said. “It amazes me how you can get put in jail for something like that. It don’t make no sense to me. I’m not ignorant or dumb. You can’t put people in jail for a bill.”
A graduate of Valley High School who once played football and baseball, the 56-year-old Newman currently survives on disability income. A former warehouse worker, he had to give up his job when he lost function in his legs due to peripheral vascular disease, a condition he still struggles with.
Not only did he lose five days of his life and money that he could not afford due to the overdue bill, he also lost his family home. Although he said he had been keeping up with the payments on the family property, he said his father had taken out a second mortgage on the house – one that he did not know about.
Additionally, Newman said the Valley code enforcement inspectors had identified some issues at the home.
“They condemned it over some windows and a little bit of electrical work, and that’s it,” Newman said. “Which wouldn’t have took nothing to fix, you know.”
It was demolished while he was serving his five days.
“They condemned it,” he said. “The next thing I know, I was in jail. When my friend came and got me out, we were coming up that hill. I looked and said, ‘My house is gone.’”
For now, Newman is living in a house a few blocks away, a vacant property a friend is letting him use.
“He opened his door up to me when he didn’t have to,” Newman said, choking back tears. “And I thank God for him. I really do.”
Even as lawyers have helped some of those affected avoid jail and some of the fees that city policies have rained down on them, the larger goal remains solving the problem so no one else will have to face jail time over a debt.
“Our goal is to ensure that that no one is denied essential solid waste services or prosecuted simply because they cannot afford a trash bill,” said Ellen Degnan, a staff attorney with the SPLC’s Economic Justice Practice Group.
Miriam Gutman, a senior staff attorney with the Economic Justice Practice Group, said she hopes discussions between plaintiffs’ attorneys and the city of Valley can continue.
“The hope is that the city will adopt policies that do not unfairly punish people who are unable to pay,” she said.
Aside from the obvious issue of incarceration, the health and safety concerns that denial of trash collection causes are of utmost importance, as are the civil and economic concerns raised by these cases.
In Jackson’s case, she said the trash made it hard for her to breathe as the pile alongside her house grew. It also drove her to the local hospital as the growing mound heightened her anxiety.
“Trash brings diseases,” Jackson said. “It can kill you. It can kill you, your pets, your property value. It will bring bad animals. Rats bring snakes. Snakes bring vultures. I have vultures in my yard. My little dog almost got taken out by the vultures because he was trying to run them out of the yard.”
The city is also taking steps independent of the courts. It has set up a special committee to examine its solid waste fee policies. In a letter to the Valley city attorney, the SPLC raised concerns that the city’s practices may violate the Fair Housing Act and offered to help in any negotiations over new policies.
Some of the suggestions the SPLC attorneys have made include creating trash fee exemptions for indigent people and senior citizens, along with payment plans for lower-income residents, instead of criminalizing and fining their residents over their inability to pay their bills. The attorneys also proposed that Valley should stop suspending trash services and restore trash pickup services to residents whose trash services are currently suspended for the sake of public health if the residents can demonstrate that they did not willfully fail to pay.
“The city … has demonstrated a desire to protect the civil rights and basic needs of its residents,” the SPLC letter concludes. “We would appreciate the opportunity to meet with committee members and elaborate why we think our proposals here serve the best interests of the entire city, and especially its Black and low-income residents.”
For now, though, the prosecutions continue. Shameka Williams cut straight to the heart of the issue.
“They really don’t treat the Black people as they should here,” Williams said. “Me growing up here, we don’t notice it. But as I grow older, I see how we are being treated.”
Photo at top: Nortasha Jackson faced charges after falling behind on her trash collection bill in Valley, Alabama. Charges were later dismissed against Jackson, who was represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center. However, the city of Valley has been arresting its citizens for years over past-due trash bills. (Credit: Hillary Andrews)