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Modern Debtors Prison: Alabama Jailing Residents Over Tickets

According to a federal class action lawsuit [PDF] filed in Alabama this month, the city of Alexander is incarcerating people who are unable to pay court fees and fines in a modern-day debtors prison. The suit argues the practice not only constitutes false imprisonment, but also violates inmates’ Fourth, Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights under the Constitution.

The lawsuit, brought against Alexander City and its police chief, Willie Robinson, estimates the practice has impacted more than 200 low-income residents “who obtained traffic tickets or misdemeanors” over the past decade. Nearly 30% of Alexander City residents live below the poverty line.

Incarcerating people for their inability to pay debts is incredibly destabilizing for both the individual and any family or loved ones that may depend on them. Trapped in jail, they are unable to work or take care of their other responsibilities. Their absence may cost them their employment, creating a vicious cycle that makes their financial situation even worse and often leads to further imprisonment for their inability to pay their debts.

In Alexander City, once a person is assessed a fine or is ordered to make a payment at the municipal court, they generally must make their payment in full by the end of that day. Partial payments are not accepted.

If the individual cannot pay, “the judge’s response is to tell them to discuss this in the back room,” located behind the bench and inaccessible to the public. The lawsuit states that in most cases, the defendant is not advised of their right to counsel or what may happen if they wave those rights. Counsel is not always appointed for the defendant, either.

Unable to come up with their payment by the end of the court’s business day, “they are instructed to sit and wait for an officer to take them to jail, which is located on the lower level of the building.” They are arrested, even though there is “no probable cause or arrest warrant to arrest these individuals,” and are held until the debt is paid or they “sit out” their fines at a rate of $20-40 per day.

Jailed over unpaid traffic tickets

The complaint centers on the stories of two Alexander City residents named D’angelo Foster and Amanda Underwood, which illustrate the serious, yet bizarre situations in which people find themselves when unable to pay for something as seemingly minor as a traffic violations.

Foster, for example, pled guilty in 2014 to driving under the influence and possession of drug paraphernalia (he had been charged with marijuana possession but was found not guilty). His total fines and court costs rose to about $1,748, which he could not afford to pay.

Without access to an attorney, Foster was ordered to take substance abuse classes and report for monthly drug testing. He had $800 to pay the court, but was told partial payments are not acceptable. He was told to go to a room behind the judge’s bench, where he was made to wait until he was arrested and brought to the jail downstairs. He was not told how long he would be held until after he was in custody.

Unable to pay his debt, he was left to sit it out at a rate of $20 per day. He could earn $40 off of his debt each day if he became a “trustee,” which meant he had to do “whatever jobs officers asked him to do,” such as their laundry, cleaning the jail and washing police cars.

After thirty five days, Foster was released, but he had lost the job he had held for the past two years manufacturing auto parts. He struggled to find new employment, and when he finally found it, it was for substantially less money. Soon he was late making child support payments and was jailed again for his inability to do so. He was then ordered to pay $395 for four court classes, $55 for each of his six monthly drug testing appointments, and $10 every time he had to reschedule. He completed his final drug testing appointment last month.

Underwood was arrested the same year as Foster, after she was unable to pay a parking violation. She was divorced and worked in a fast food restaurant in town to support herself and her children. With no counsel at her side, Underwood was brought to a room behind the bench and was arrested when she said she could not pay.

Coincidentally, her partner and the father of her two youngest children had been arrested that same day for his inability to pay his own fines, leaving their young children unattended on their son’s second birthday. The two were released after Underwood called her ex-husband, who agreed to pay off their debts to Alexander City.

But like Foster, it would not be long before Underwood was back in court, ordered to pay for another traffic violation she could not afford. She was arrested again, without an attorney or the slightest clue of how long she was going to be held.

Having been through this before, however, Underwood knew she could get out faster as a trustee doing chores for police officers. She applied and was accepted, earning her release five days later. Since then, she received another ticket for driving with a suspended license after borrowing a friends car to pick up food for the children. Her court date is in October of this year, and she “fears being jailed once again because she does not believe she will have enough money to pay for this ticket.”

The complaint states:

[Underwood] earns minimum wage at the restaurant chain and receives social security disability income. However, her income is minimal and insufficient to cover her current expenses, as she is facing garnishment from the New Jersey Department of Human Services (DHS), where she and her ex-husband formerly lived.

Because of her limited funds, Ms. Underwood has been unable to turn the water back on in her home, and she walks two hours each way to work since she has no means of paying for a car, gas money, or even a bicycle.

In neither case did the court assess the individual’s ability to make payments before considering their punishment.

Debt slavery

Although debtors prisons were technically outlawed in the 1850’s, debt peonage has existed in one form or another ever since.

After the abolition of slavery, Black Americans were quickly re-enslaved through the use of the convict lease system, in which free men were arrested on fabricated or weak charges in kangaroo courts, and forced to labor until their “debt” had been repaid.

In many cases, that debt was never repaid, and nor was it ever meant to be. Free black men were held in perpetuity because they had to also pay for the costs of their food and lodging while they were being enslaved, creating a cycle of debt from which they would never escape.

In certain ways, convict leasing was more inhumane than chattel slavery. Under the latter system, slaves were more expensive and slave owners tended to keep them alive for as long as possible. But because debt slaves were often acquired for free or for relatively small sums of money from local sheriffs, they were regularly worked to death in a short amount of time and quickly replaced with other ‘convicted’ free men soon after, toiling away in some of the most dangerous conditions in the country.

Nowadays, those ensnared in the legal system for their inability to pay debts are still making money for their (often white, wealthy and powerful) captors through free labor. In addition to schemes like the one in Alexander City, for-profit companies specializing in probation and fee collection have faced similar allegations as those listed in the lawsuit.

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Brian Sonenstein

Brian Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.