The US’s debtors’ prisons and their abuses

What has emerged about the state of policing in the town of Ferguson, MO in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown has been ugly, revealing a city in which the police and legal system has been treating the residents, especially poor people and people of color, appallingly. Now a class action lawsuit has been filed in the US District Court in the Eastern District of Missouri by people who charge that they have been abused by the city, and the descriptions by the individuals in the suit make for appalling reading.

What the lawsuit shows is that debtors’ prisons, once thought to be a thing of the past, is now an all-pervasive fact of life in the US and one of the ways in which the city raises operating revenues. In 2014 Ferguson was issuing “an average of more than 3.6 arrest warrants per household and almost 2.2 arrest warrants for every adult, mostly in cases involving unpaid debt for tickets.” The city uses the fines levied on poor people for minor offenses and the subsequent heavy penalties for nonpayment as a major source of revenue and in fact anticipation of these revenues is embedded in the city’s budget. As the suit says, “As a result, the entire municipal government apparatus, including municipal court officials and City jailors, has a significant and corrupting incentive to operate the court and the jail in a way that maximizes revenues, not justice. ”

To describe these debtors’ prisons as Dickensian (as the lawsuit does) is to understate the case because it is likely that even that chronicler of the system in Victorian England would be shocked at the conditions under which the inmates in Ferguson were kept. Here is what the lawsuit describes.

1. The Plaintiffs in this case are each impoverished people who were jailed by the City of Ferguson because they were unable to pay a debt owed to the City from traffic tickets or other minor offenses. In each case, the City imprisoned a human being solely because the person could not afford to make a monetary payment. Although the Plaintiffs pleaded that they were unable to pay due to their poverty, each was held in jail indefinitely and none was afforded a lawyer or the inquiry into their ability to pay that the United States Constitution requires. Instead, they were threatened, abused, and left to languish in confinement at the mercy of local officials until their frightened family members could produce enough cash to buy their freedom or until City jail officials decided, days or weeks later, to let them out for free.

2. Once locked in the Ferguson jail, impoverished people owing debts to the City endure grotesque treatment. They are kept in overcrowded cells; they are denied toothbrushes, toothpaste, and soap; they are subjected to the constant stench of excrement and refuse in their congested cells; they are surrounded by walls smeared with mucus and blood; they are kept in the same clothes for days and weeks without access to laundry or clean underwear; they step on top of other inmates, whose bodies cover nearly the entire uncleaned cell floor, in order to access a single shared toilet that the City does not clean; they develop untreated illnesses and infections in open wounds that spread to other inmates; they endure days and weeks without being allowed to use the moldy shower; their filthy bodies huddle in cold temperatures with a single thin blanket even as they beg guards for warm blankets; they are not given adequate hygiene products for menstruation; they are routinely denied vital medical care and prescription medication, even when their families beg to be allowed to bring medication to the jail; they are provided food so insufficient and lacking in nutrition that inmates lose significant amounts of weight; they suffer from dehydration out of fear of drinking foul smelling water that comes from an apparatus on top of the toilet; and they must listen to the screams of other inmates languishing from unattended medical issues as they sit in their cells without access to books, legal materials, television, or natural light. Perhaps worst of all, they do not know when they will be allowed to leave.

3. These physical abuses and deprivations are accompanied by other pervasive humiliations. Jail guards routinely taunt impoverished people when they are unable to pay for their release, telling them that they will be released whenever jail staff “feels” like letting them go. As described in detail below, jail guards routinely and pervasively laugh at the inmates and humiliate them with discriminatory and degrading epithets. For example, when filthy and shivering women were forced to share blankets to stay warm, officers shouted at the women that they were “stanky ass dykes” and “dirty whores.”

If you think that is bad, you should read the individual testimonies. Of course, this is from a lawsuit filed by the victims so it is only one-side of the story. But the suit includesthe individual stories of the eleven named people in the suit and as you read them you begin to both despair of humanity and feel enraged at the way the abusers behaved. Nowhere to be seen is any evidence of the “intimate friendship” or “mutual care” between police and public that affluent people like David Brooks fear will be lost if police are required to wear body cameras. Even if only a relatively small fraction of the allegations are true, it is still disgusting. How can people treat others like this? How can people be so cruel and mean to their fellow human beings? Have we sunk so low that people who are poor can have any indignity inflicted on them?

The US, to its shame, already has an awful reputation as a torture-indulging nation but its enablers like Dick Cheney and others shrug it off as the necessary price to pay for getting information from terrorists, though that rationale has been thoroughly debunked. But what can you call treating people like above anything other than torture or something closely akin to it? How can one justify torturing people whose main crime is that they are poor? Is the Obama administration also going to let the perpetrators of these abuses to escape scot-free, like it does with those involved in the glorious and never-ending war on terror, or will it order its Justice Department to institute criminal proceedings against them?


  1. A Masked Avenger says

    Be careful of selective outrage: Ferguson is a particularly extreme example, but this is how the legal system works throughout the country. If we treat Ferguson as a “bad apple,” then we give aid and comfort to the other apples in a thoroughly rotten barrel.

    I’ve worked in law enforcement in a different state, and it works the same way: you can’t be jailed for private debts, but you can and will be jailed for public debts. Every local jurisdiction (with no exceptions that I know of) structures its statutes and ordinances so that the penalty is a fine OR jail time. The judge pretty much always imposes the fine. If they fail to pay the fine, then they get the jail time instead.

    The only difference between this and debtors’ prison is that they aren’t held until they can pay--they’re held for 30 days, or whatever was specified as the penalty in the statute or ordinance. (In my jurisdiction, ordinances create “summary offenses,” punishable by a maximum of 90 days’ jail time or $300 fine--to which various fees and “costs” are then added. Most traffic violations are summary offenses.)

    Since the primary purpose of these ordinances is revenue generation, people are seldom jailed. Instead jail is used as a threat to extort the fines (plus fees and costs). I’ve seen judges give out payment plans, extensions… always with an air of doing the hugest favor to the defendant, when the reality is that jailing them costs money, and the entire purpose here is to collect money.

    Ferguson is what you get when the system is taken over by sadistic people who enjoy power more than money, but everywhere else is the same basic system. It just wears a velvet glove, and it usually prioritizes money higher.

  2. Apropos of nothing says

    @1 A Masked Avenger: “Be careful of selective outrage: Ferguson is a particularly extreme example, but this is how the legal system works throughout the country.” So, out of curiosity, on what basis is Ferguson to be considered “a particularly extreme example”? Its the one we know about, its awful, so it seems extreme only because we don’t yet know about all the others -- but unique? Given that “this is how the legal system works throughout the country”, that claim seems to be incredibly wishful thinking. Without the tragic shooting we wouldn’t know anything, but now with the spotlight on policing, it seems that official brutality towards minorities and the poor is tragically commonplace. If the curtains were to be drawn back on all the 1000’s and 1000’s of little municipalities across the country, why would you expect to see anything different from Ferguson?

  3. A Masked Avenger says

    Apropos, #3:

    How about demonstrating that you’ve read and comprehended anything past my first sentence? I don’t say what you claim, and I answer your question. Thanks.

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