Debtors’ prisons fill up in deep South

Across the U.S., local jails have turned into “debtors’ prisons” as cities and counties imprison poor people who can’t pay fines for traffic violations, minor offenses or “court costs.” Nowhere is this more dramatic than in the Deep South, where imprisoned people are disproportionately young Black people, immigrants, people of color and lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans* and queer people. (

In Alabama, Perry County Circuit Judge Marvin Wiggins told a courtroom full of people at an unpaid fines hearing on Sept. 17: “[I]f you do not have any money and don’t want to go to jail, consider giving blood today and bring your receipt back, or the sheriff has enough handcuffs for those who do not have money.” (Equal Justice Initiative)

Debra Shoemaker Ford from Shelby County was jailed there for seven weeks with no court hearing. Her crime? She had not paid the monthly fees charged by a private probation company, Judicial Correction Services (JCS). The company, based in Georgia, had provided her bail for a traffic violation. (

In Chilton County, retired ill steelworker Richard Garrett was jailed for two years and owed $10,000 simply for traffic and license violations, plus fees and fines accrued over 10 years. (New York Times, July 2, 2012)

Free Alabama Movement march at Tutwiler Women’s Prison, August 2014.Photo: Free Alabama Movement

Free Alabama Movement march at Tutwiler Women’s Prison, August 2014.
Photo: Free Alabama Movement

Jailing someone for debt who is too poor to pay is a civil rights violation under the 1966 U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It is also illegal under the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Bearden vs. Georgia.

But though debtor’s prisons are not allowed de jure — by law — they are on the rise de facto. As part of a prisons-for-profit boom of the last 20 years, “offender-funded” initiatives throughout the U.S. “justice” system have shifted much of the cost for the system to the prisoners themselves. Economically squeezed cities and counties have actively adopted this approach to add to their “revenue stream.”

Local governments also augment revenues by contracting with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to arrest and jail undocumented immigrants in order to fulfill quotas to keep “beds filled” at for-profit detention centers run by corporate giants like Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group. Incarcerated immigrants then incur costs in the local “fee stream.” (grassrootsleadership.

Predatory companies like Judicial Corrections Services are contracted by local cities and counties to collect fines, restitution and fees from convicted or incarcerated people. Boasting they are “saving taxpayer dollars,” the profit-driven companies hound poor people for all kinds of fees, including jail book-in, public defender application, drug testing, DNA testing, drug rehab, electronic monitoring, as well as jail per diems for pretrial detention, court costs and more. (

The private companies charge the local governments nothing; they make their profits by adding extra fees to court defendant bills.

The companies are bill collectors with the power to decide if someone goes to jail for not paying. Poor defendants have the right to legal counsel in criminal cases, but not in civil cases — such as indebtedness. That leaves poor defendants at the mercy of profit-hungry companies like JCS.

A 2010 study by the Brennan Center for Justice looked at the fee structures in 15 U.S. states with the largest prison populations, including California, Florida and Texas. The study noted the user fees “create new paths to prison for those unable to pay their debts and make it harder to find employment and housing as well as to meet child support obligations.” Criminal-justice debt also affects eligibility for a driver’s license and credit worthiness.

Prisoners fight back

A national campaign against debtors’ prisons is picking up speed. On Oct. 21 the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit against JCS, the city of Biloxi, Miss., its police chief and a municipal judge, charging they operate “a modern-day debtors’ prison … [that] arrests and jails impoverished people in a scheme to generate municipal revenue.”

Last January the ACLU filed a similar suit in Georgia against DeKalb County and rapidly reached settlement in March, achieving limited systemic reform. Under this pressure, the day before the ACLU suit was filed in Mississippi, the JCS announced it was ceasing business in Alabama.

Militant prisoner actions nationwide preceded these legal challenges and continue to fuel the increasing national struggle against prisons-for-profit and mass incarceration.

In 2011 prisoners in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison launched a hunger strike against solitary confinement sentences that routinely lasted over 10 years. By 2013 over 30,000 California prisoners had joined the strike, the largest in history. Under tremendous pressure from prisoners, their families and their communities, Gov. Jerry Brown bowed to a settlement to phase out indefinite solitary confinement.

This March mothers in the immigrant Karnes Family Detention Camp in Texas went on a work and hunger strike, demanding to be freed with their children. In June mothers at the Berks County, Pa., Family Detention Camp launched a similar work strike. A federal judge ruled in their favor on Aug. 21, ordering the Obama administration to release all detained mothers and children by Oct. 23. (

On Jan. 1, 2014, the Free Alabama Movement announced “a cross-racial collective action … for Human and Civil Rights, in the form of a work stoppage” that spread to the St. Clair County and Elmore County jails. FAM is a grassroots organization founded by men incarcerated in Alabama.

The Free Alabama Movement is clear about the basis for their strategy of resistance: “Prisons don’t function without inmate labor. And every day that the prison doesn’t function, the prison profit margin plummets.”