So desperate for food and shelter, an Alabama man did the unthinkable this week: robbing a bank so he could turn himself in and get sent to jail.
Rickie Lawrence Gardner, a 49-year-old man from the small town of Moulton, Alabama, entered Bank Independent on Monday and handed the teller a note saying he had a gun and to hand over the bank’s money. After the employee complied, Gardner took the bag of cash, walked outside, and locked it in his car. He then sat on a bench in front of the bank and waited for police officers to arrive.
“When officers got there, he did not offer any kind of resistance. He was just waiting on them,” Moulton Police Chief Lyndon McWhorter said. “His is the first bank robbery I’ve ever worked where the robber was waiting outside the bank for the police to turn himself in.”
What drove Gardner to such a drastic measure? He was on the cusp of losing his job because a leg injury put him in so much pain that it prevented him from working. Facing possible homelessness, jail was a preferable option in his mind. And he wasn’t looking for just a short stay. Despite his note, Gardner wasn’t even carrying a gun when he committed the robbery; he’d only mentioned it in the note, according to the AP, “because he thought it would get him a longer sentence.”
As heartbreaking as it is that a poor American might think that giving up his own freedom is his best hope for survival, there are many reasons why someone might hold that view. Indeed, Alabama has one of the worst social safety nets of any state in the country. It has one of the stingiest maximum TANF benefits, formerly known as welfare, at just $190 per month for a family of two. In other words, even if Gardner had a child and were receiving $190 per month, that would still leave him 85 percent lower than the federal poverty line of $14,710.
Alabama lawmakers have also made it increasingly difficult for poor residents like Gardner to receive health care. Though some Republican governors in states like Arizona and Ohio have embraced Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid to cover poor citizens, Alabama has steadfastly opposed doing so, despite the fact that it’s fully funded by the federal government for the first three years. As a result, hundreds of thousands of low-income individuals won’t receive health care. Even without the Medicaid expansion, it’s already incredibly difficult to be eligible in Alabama. A single adult, like Gardner, who makes more than $1,332 per year is considered too wealthy to qualify for Medicaid in Alabama.
Perhaps most tragic about Gardner’s saga is that even if he gets his wish and winds up in prison, Alabama’s incarceration system is severely overcrowded and underfunded. Because it draws its funding largely from the General Fund, state lawmakers’ budget-cutting zeal could produce shortfalls in prison funding. As a result, Chris Sanders, a policy analyst at the public interest group Arise Citizens’ Policy Project, notes that Gardner could be entering “a system that runs at nearly double its designed capacity and that many people long have believed to be teetering on the brink of a federal takeover.”