Shutting Down Debtors’ Prisons

Louisiana Debtors’ Prisons

Equal Justice Under Law has been conducting extensive investigations into the rise of modern-day debtors prisons.  In September 2015, we filed a major class action lawsuit in federal court in New Orleans.  The suit alleges widespread and systemic violations of basic human and civil rights in the New Orleans legal system.  The result is a modern day debtors’ prison of staggering scope.

Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the United States, and the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world.  Incredibly, every government actor in the local legal system — the District Attorney, the Sheriff, all of the judges, and the Public Defender — all depend on criminal convictions and high money bonds to fund themselves.  This system is intolerable and has devastated the poorest people in New Orleans.  Despite the blatant illegality of this system, it has persisted for decades because everyone takes a cut and because its victims are impoverished people and people of color.

You can read the New York Times article about the case here.

Mississippi Debtors’ Prisons

Equal Justice Under Law and the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law filed a major class action federal civil rights lawsuit challenging a forced labor camp and debtors’ prison used by the City of Jackson, Mississippi. The City calls its unconstitutional scheme its “pay or stay” program.

Our clients are impoverished and destitute people thrown in jail for months to “sit out” monetary debts to the City of Jackson from old traffic and misdemeanor cases. Those who are able are told to “work off” their debts at $58 per day on a government-run Penal Farm. Those who are disabled and unable to work are forced to languish in jail for months watching their debts decrease by $25 per day.

These atrocities are visited disproportionately on the black community of Jackson. The Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments were enacted to prohibit forced labor and debtors’ prisons. Our lawsuit seeks to stop the City of Jackson from criminal and unconstitutional behavior that has no place in any society.

You can read a copy of the Complaint here.

Missouri Debtors’ Prisons

For many years, the cities of Ferguson and Jennings have used their local courts, jails, and police forces to generate millions of dollars in profit off the backs of their most impoverished residents. The pursuit of profit has entirely changed the nature of local policing and local government. For example, in 2014, Ferguson averaged 3.62 arrest warrants per household and 2.2 arrest warrants for every adult, mostly in cases involving unpaid debt for traffic tickets.

Once locked in the jails of Ferguson and Jennings, debtors endure grotesque, dungeon-like conditions. Human beings languish in cells covered in blood, mucus, and feces without access to soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, laundry, medical care, exercise, adequate food, natural light, books, television, or legal materials. They are told that they will be kept in jail indefinitely unless they or their families come up with arbitrary and constantly changing amounts of money to buy their freedom. Desperate inmates and their families frantically borrow money to get their loved ones out of jail, only to find out that their debts have increased from new fees. The cycle repeats itself for years.

These practices have devastated the impoverished people of Ferguson and Jennings and created a culture of enormous fear and resentment toward local government. Similar practices throughout the St. Louis region have led to four suicides in just the past five months in local jails by people who were too poor to afford to pay for their release.

In partnership with the amazing local St. Louis non-profit organization ArchCity Defenders and professors from the highly regarded Saint Louis University School of Law Clinical Programs, Equal Justice Under Law is exposing and challenging two of the most flagrant and profitable debtors’ prisons schemes in the country.

Please read our Complaints (click on these links for the lawsuits in Ferguson and Jennings) to see the stories of our clients in these two important cases, and please continue to support our difficult work.

You can read media coverage of the cases here:

Alabama Debtors’ Prisons

In March 2014, we filed a class action lawsuit — Mitchell et al. v. City of Montgomery — in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama against the City of Montgomery for its operation of a local debtors’ prison. For at least the past several years, Montgomery has been illegally jailing hundreds of its poorest people for unpaid debts, usually from traffic tickets, despite the Constitution’s guarantee that no person can be jailed simply for being too poor to pay.

Montgomery’s debtors’ prison scheme required each of the Plaintiffs either to pay the fines immediately or to “sit out” her or his debt in the city jail at a rate of $50 per day. Once locked in the City’s jail, the Plaintiffs were told that they could reduce their time in jail by working off their debts for an additional $25 per day if they agreed to perform janitorial tasks, including cleaning city offices, scrubbing feces and blood from jail floors, and wiping the jail bars inside their overcrowded cells.

Equal Justice Under Law obtained a preliminary injunction on May 1, 2014, barring Montgomery from jailing three of its clients who were at imminent risk of being jailed. After the order, Montgomery released dozens of human beings from its local jail who had been too poor to pay traffic fines.

On November 17, 2014, the federal court issued a landmark injunction enforcing a settlement agreement reached by Equal Justice Under Law and the City. The injunction reforms the entire City court system, barring the City from jailing its poorest people for their inability to pay their debts to the City. The injunction also stops the City from privatizing its probation and debt collection services for at least three years, ending the City’s use of the illegal and unconscionable practice of “private probation,” a scheme in which a for-profit company with a financial incentive in the outcome of court cases had been allowed by the City to make enormous profits by charging the poor onerous fees in addition to their debts and then asking the City to jail impoverished people when they could not pay.

To read the Complaint in Mitchell v. Montgomery, click here.

To read the final settlement agreement, click here.

For media coverage of Equal Justice Under Law’s challenge to Montgomery’s debtors’ prisons, click the links below: