Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Debtor's Prisons in 21st Century America

Women at mealtime - St. Pancras Workhouse in London
Last week Alan Pyke wrote an article posted on ThinkProgress.org about a recent court settlement reached with the city of Colorado Springs, Colorado in the wake of an ACLU suit filed over the incarceration of mostly poor and homeless individuals basically for being poor.

It's a sad testament to a 21st century America where the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest is as wide as it's ever been, and stagnant wages and crippling financial debt are a reality for millions of people.

Society has wrestled with the criminalization of poverty as a legal and moral issue since as far back as the middle ages when Europeans unable to pay off debts were taken to debtor's prisons where they could be kept for years until their debts were paid off.

Grim images of work houses (where people were locked up until they paid off debts through menial labor) in Ireland or England evoke scenes out of the books of English author Charles Dickens, who fictionalized settings, characters and scenes based on the social conditions he personally witnessed in England and France in the 1800's.

Marshalsea Debtor's Prison 1897
Dickens' views on the horrendous living conditions of the poor in the 19th century were deeply personal.

After his father John Dickens, who worked as a clerk in the Navy pay office, began to live beyond his means and accrue debts, he was imprisoned in the Marshalsea debtor's prison in London in 1824.

Dickens, who was well-read as a young boy and had attended private schools, was forced to leave school, take up residence with an impoverished friend of the family named Elizabeth Roylance, and work grueling ten hour shifts in a dilapidated rat-infested warehouse where he pasted labels onto pots of bootblack for six shillings a week.

Meager wages which went towards his room and board.

In fact, as Dickens would relate in The Life and Times of Charles Dickens, on his first day of work, a boy named Bob Fagin showed Dickens the proper way to attach the labels to the pots; Dickens later based the character Fagin from Oliver Twist off this same boy.

The remarkable yet disturbing book and PBS film Slavery By Another Name by Douglas A. Blackmon shed light on the systematic incarceration and forced servitude of thousands and thousands of African-Americans at the hands of a corrupt and racist judicial system in the southern United States after the Civil War up until World War II.

To look back on the deplorable social conditions of the poor and working class in Europe and America from the Middle Ages up through the 20th century, it's almost unimaginable to think that modern municipal governments in the wealthiest democracy in the Western world still imprison people for being poor - but as the ACLU suit against Colorado Springs shows - it's true.

And not just in Colorado either.

Ferguson cop Darren Wilson & Mary Ann Twitty (r)
In the wake of the killing of teenager Michael Brown by former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, the subsequent investigation of Ferguson's municipal courts and police department by the Department of Justice found a corrupt system that was systematically targeting middle and low income African-Americans for low-level administrative violations like parking violations, moving violations and even citations for "manner of walking" as a means to generate revenue.

Remember my blog about Mary Ann Twitty's magic wand? 

Remarkable that it took global outrage over a Ferguson PD officer shooting an unarmed 17 year-old boy in broad daylight and months of subsequent protests for the federal government to unravel the tentacles of a corrupt municipal court system working in tandem with the police department to intentionally target poor people of color simply to assign fines used as a revenue stream.

Modern debtor's prisons in America have even proven deadly.

Rex Iverson died over $2,376.92
Remember the story of Rex Iverson?

He was the Utah man who was jailed for failing to appear in court over an outstanding $2,376.92 bill that he owed for an ambulance ride in 2015.

After failing to respond to notices to pay the balance, he was arrested and placed in a holding cell where he was later found dead.

The inability to pay a fine also led to the death of 55 year-old Eileen DeNino back in June of 2014.

As Alan Pyke reported in an article for ThinkProgress.org two years ago, DeNino, a mother of seven, was jailed after not being able to provide documentation that she was not able to come up with $2,000 she owed from accrued fees related to her children being truant from the Reading, Pennsylvania school system.

Can someone explain the logic of locking a mother up in jail because she can't provide proof that she can't come up with $2,000?

55 year-old Eileen DeNino died over $2,000
Like Rex Iverson, she was arrested and a judge sentenced her to be incarcerated for 48 hours.

And like Iverson, DeNino was later found dead in the Berks County Jail.  

Over $2,000 in inflated fees and court costs.

The rise of for-profit prisons in the U.S. has also contributed to an increase in people being jailed because they can't pay court costs or fines.

A tactic that plays right into the hands of private companies like Judicial Correction Services (JSC) who routinely violate the constitutional rights of Americans and incarcerate them in private facilities - for profit.

It leads to some truly sad tales.

Stories like Georgia teenager Kevin Thompson a tow truck driver employed at an auto repair shop who was jailed for being unable to pay an $810 fine (based on a JSC recommendation...) after the DeKalb County Recorder's Court handed Thompson's case over to JSC.

Cases like these are all too common even though debtor's prisons were outlawed in the U.S. in the 1830's.

But as the old adage goes, what's old is made new again.

The glimmer of hope is that organizations like the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center and other legal advocacy groups are continuing to focus attention and resources on egregious laws that allow local governments to jail people simply for not having enough money to pay fines.

Fines which are too often leveled at those already burdened by the economic disadvantages of existing at the lower end of the rungs of an unequal and all too frequently unjust society governed by politicians who still fancy it "the land of the free".

Rex Iverson and Eilleen DeNino would say that's a myth; and Charles Dickens would simply weep.

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