Louisiana judge has been helping campaign donor hold state prisoners for ransom, suit says

This is even more brazen than most stories about financially exploited prisoners.

Judge Trudy White of Louisiana's 19th Judicial District. CREDIT: WAFB/Screenshot
Judge Trudy White of Louisiana's 19th Judicial District. CREDIT: WAFB/Screenshot

Get charged with a crime in East Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and you might expect to head home once you make bail.

But for more than 300 prisoners who had the misfortune to go before Judge Trudy White for their bond hearing in 2015 and 2016, things were more complicated, according to a lawsuit filed Monday night by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Until they also ponied up a $525 check to White’s friends at Rehabilitation Home Incarceration (RHI), they would remain locked up.

Management staff from the family-run court services vendor had helped re-elect White to a second term in 2014, both through donations and by working directly for her campaign. Beginning in 2015, the suit says, White required all accused criminals who bonded out through her court to also enroll in RHI’s pre-trial monitoring services. White imposed the requirement without regard to the particular circumstances of any given case, according to the suit, which includes a copy of what the ACLU and SPLC say is White’s standard bond court paperwork. Inmates were required to pay RHI an initial $525 fee before East Baton Rouge jail officials would release them, even after bond had been posted. They were then charged more than $225 a month for services that the plaintiffs say RHI did not even provide.

Thus empowered by White as arbiter of pre-trial suspects’ freedom, RHI is far from shy about wielding state law enforcement power as a cudgel. The suit alleges that the company routinely threatens its “clients” with re-arrest by East Baton Rouge sheriff’s deputies should someone fail to pay up. Their monthly fees, augmented by various other charges for classes and monitoring services, can quickly add up into the thousands of dollars. White never bothers to inquire about the financial straits of inmates before setting bond or assigning them to RHI’s accounts receivable department, the suit says.

Neither RHI chief executive Cleve Dunn, Sr., nor Judge White responded to requests for comment on the suit. The scheme alleged in the complaint was first uncovered by local television news reporters in 2016.

Plaintiffs Henry Ayo and Kaiasha White said they each spent weeks longer in the parish jailhouse than should have been strictly necessary, thanks to the judge’s cozy relationship with RHI. White had to wait for her mother’s Social Security check to arrive before anyone could afford to pay both a bailbondsman and the judge’s former campaign staffers at the supervision company. In the month she spent jailed following her bond hearing, her home was flooded and ruined. Ayo spent two months jailed while his wife saved up to pay both bond and RHI’s release fee.

The two hope they are just the beginning of a larger case. SPLC and ACLU lawyers seek class-action status for the suit, pointing to court records indicating that over 300 people were subject to the White-RHI scheme.

The alleged kickback scheme between an elected judge and her major campaign booster is more brazen than most stories about financially exploited prisoners. But its general premise — private pockets bulging through misuse of the state’s authority to deprive a person of their freedom before it has been proven they broke the law — is a rampant fungus across the nation’s legal system.

Numerous small towns around the United States have long engaged in some form of the practice. People who can pay whatever bespoke palette of fees, fines, and court costs a jurisdiction assesses in minor cases are free to go. Those too poor to pay get to stay behind bars until someone shows up with currency. These modern-day debtor’s prison rules have grown so widespread that the Department of Justice publicly warned all court administrators nationwide to end the practices in 2016. Some cities have paid large settlements to people unjustly incarcerated for failure to pay fees, a flagrant violation of the Constitution’s requirement that justice be equal for all without regard to identity or class.