A handful of unpaid traffic tickets landed four residents of Montgomery, AL in jail, where they were told to work off their debt by scrubbing floors and serving food, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court Tuesday. The complaint charges that Montgomery is running an illegal debtors’ prison by imprisoning poor people who can’t afford to pay fines. To pay off their debts faster, inmates allegedly compete for jobs around the jail, like cleaning feces and blood off the floor. One plaintiff, 23-year-old Sharnalle Mitchell, says she was told she could work off her debt at $25 a day, and started keeping track of how quickly she could get back to her children on the back of a paper the guards had given her. “There were a lot of other women in the City jail, and most of them were desperate to get out, so we were all competing with each other to get the cleaning work so that we could work off our debts more quickly,” she wrote in her statement to the court.
Another plaintiff, 58-year-old Lorenzo Brown, reported that the jail was so crowded he had to sleep on the floor, even though he has various disabilities including arthritis and join pain. The Montgomery Legal Department and the Department of Public Safety declined to comment on the ongoing case.
Debtors prisons, nominally abolished in the U.S. in the 1830s, are enjoying a resurgence after the recession simultaneously pushed more people into poverty and squeezed cash-strapped court systems hungry for revenue. Courts are legally required to assess the defendants’ ability to pay, but in several recent cases across the country, attorneys have reported that judges simply skipped over that determination. Another case currently being pursued against Montgomery charges that one judge refused to even look at a letter from an employer explaining that the man in question would not be able to afford payments because work had been slow.
Yet throwing people in jail actually costs taxpayers more money than the debts owed. Research from the ACLU and the Brennan Center estimates counties end up losing thousands of dollars each year to imprison poor people. The typical jail spends around $100 per day to hold an inmate, more or less guaranteeing a net loss even if some pay up. Time in jail also makes it much harder to hold on to a job or land one after being released, setting former inmates up to fall behind their payments once again.
One big winner from this vicious cycle is Judicial Corrections Services (JCS), the Georgia-based private probation firm to which many cities and counties outsource debt collection. JCS offers its services at no cost to municipalities and instead reaps profits by piling additional fees on top of defendants’ debts — a deal slammed by a judge in Shelby County, AL as “a judicially sanctioned extortion racket.” This model seems to be working; the firm boasted $13 million in revenue in 2009–109 percent growth in three years.