Home > #OWS, news, rant > The re-emergence of debtors’ prisons

The re-emergence of debtors’ prisons

December 1, 2014

Yesterday at my weekly Occupy meeting we watched videos called To Prison For Poverty by Brave New Films (Part I and Part II) before discussing them. Take a look, they are well done:


It’s not the first time this issue has come up recently; the NPR investigations into court fees from last May, called Guilty and Charged, led to a bunch of reports on issues similar to this. Probably the closest is the one entitled Unpaid Court Fees Land The Poor In 21st Century Debtors’ Prisons.

A few comments:

  • Ferguson is now famous for having a basically white police force patrolling a basically black populace. But it also has this fines-and-fees-and-jails problem: fines and fees associated to mostly traffic violations accounted for 21% of the city’s budget in 2013. And there were more arrest warrants than people in Ferguson last year, mostly for non-violent offenses.
  • But the debtors’ prison problem isn’t just a racial issue. The people profiled in the above video were white, which could have been a documentarian’s decision, but in any case is a fact: the poverty-to-prison system is screwing all poor people, not just minorities. This is in spite of the fact that the Supreme Court found it unconstitutional in the landmark 1983 case, Bearden v. Georgia.
  • This sense that “everyone is screwed” creates solidarity among poor whites and poor blacks, and especially young people. The Ferguson protests have been multi-racial, for example. And if you’ve read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, you’ll recognize a historical pattern whereby political change happens when poor whites and poor blacks start working together.
  • One interesting and scary question to emerge from the above stories is, how did so many fees and fines get attached to low-level misdemeanors in the first place? It seems like privatized probation and prison companies have a lot to do with it.
  • In some cases, they are putting people in jail for days and weeks, which costs the government hundreds of dollars, in order to capture a small fee. That makes no sense.
  • In other cases, the fees accumulate so fast that the poor person who committed the misdemeanor ends up being responsible for an outrageous amount of money, far surpassing the scale of the original misdeed, and all because they are poor. That also makes no sense.
  • It’s not just for prisons either; all sorts of functions that we consider governmental functions have been privatized, like health and human services: child welfare services, homeless services, half-way houses, and more.
  • In the worst cases, the original intent of the agency (“putting people on probation so they don’t have to be in jail”) has been perverted into an entirely different beast (“putting them in jail because they can’t pay their daily $35 probation fees”). The question we’d like to investigate further is, how did that happen and why?
Categories: #OWS, news, rant
  1. December 1, 2014 at 6:58 am

    It isn’t difficult to come up with a vicious circle theory: the privatizers build prisons (or schools) that need to be kept full in order for them to make a profit so they can use a portion of that profit to fund the re-election campaigns of the politicians who pass laws to ensure the prisons (or schools) WILL be full. In the meantime, the media moguls who want to sell newspapers write narratives provided by the politicians that convince the public that the laws they are passing help keep “the irresponsible borrowers” and/or “bad actors” off the street. For any aspiring politician to argue to the contrary would make him or her someone who “supports irresponsible behavior” or someone who is “soft on crime”… a sure fire recipe for defeat. Finally, and most disappointingly, the media buys into and reinforces the “conventional wisdom” that ANY politician who argues that the .01% are oppressing the 99.9% is engaging in “class warfare”— which is against the rules… and ANY politician who suggests that the .01% pay more in taxes is a “socialist” and we need to keep our economic system of unregulated capitalism in place if we hope to remain “globally competitive”…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. December 1, 2014 at 8:08 am

    Follow the money
    And you can bet
    It flows in circles
    Pocket to pocket
    And down the toilet.



  3. December 1, 2014 at 9:07 am

    “That makes no sense.”

    When the doctor slapped you on the arse the two things I’m sure he didn’t say was that 1) this world is fair and b) politicians make sense.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Josh
      December 1, 2014 at 2:45 pm

      While you are undoubtedly correct, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work toward creating a world that is less unfair and politicians make more sense.


  4. wolverine
    December 8, 2014 at 12:32 am

    Back around 2009 my job had me detailed to Michigan, where I’m originally from, for a couple of years. At the time I’d been attending AA for quite a while (it helped me, but I eventually stopped going when I realized that the only time I ever thought about alcohol was at those meetings), so I had a nice window into Michigan’s approach to “justice”.

    I met lots of folks who had to go through months of court-ordered urinalysis. Not the worst punishment in the world, perhaps, but the testing is **entirely** contracted out. Of course offenders have to pay for every test they’re ordered to take, and I never heard of a fee that wasn’t measured in at least dozens of dollars. No small amount for people who typically weren’t flush to begin with. It would be **very** interesting to know whose pockets those monies end up in, and just how those contracts were awarded.

    Michigan also adopted the lunatic scheme of charging rent to prison inmates, so on release they could find themselves owing thousands to the state for that alone. Thankfully, anecdotally, physical reality might have thrown a wrench into Kafka’s machinery, there. I asked a cop about it, and he told me that in practice it isn’t usually enforced, because it’s so — what’s the technical term? — fucking stupid. Blood from a stone, and all that.

    Over those two years in Michigan I got three tickets for not wearing a seatbelt. Each time I was stopped in a crummy little suburb by local cops who were doing nothing but that. In other words, they weren’t manning a sobriety checkpoint, they weren’t doing a broken taillight stop, they were cops standing in the middle or on the side of the road, waving at people to pull over. It seemed like an odd use of resources….

    I’m sorry to say that Michigan — a real bastion of social and economic progress, when I was growing up there — seems to want to be the next Alabama. Of course, Ferguson shows that it’s not alone. America’s been getting meaner, more cruel, for much of my life (I’m 56, now). It really took off with Reagan. Dems are corporate scutboys, too, and pretty goddam useless overall. But Republicans seem to have a fetish for sadism for its own sake.


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