Debtor's Prison in Ferguson: the Brutality of Racism, Up Close and Personal

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Below, the intimate facts of Ferguson citizens' experiences in debtor's prison. Read it and weep.

I'm not going to post a link to this quotation, because unless you have a subscription to Harper's you won't be able to access it. Otherwise, the post's title is Municipal Bonds in their Readings section for May, 2015.

(I consider this post a matter of "fair use." It's in the public record, text which Harper's took verbatum from the lawsuit's transcript, without alteration.)

Harper's note: From a class-action lawsuit filed in February against the city of Ferguson, Missouri, for excessively fining and imprisoning residents for minor infractions. In March, the Department of Justice concluded that Ferguson relies on the “enforcement of code provisions” to generate a significant portion of revenue and that the police disproportionately target black residents. African Americans make up 67 percent of the population of Ferguson but receive 90 percent of tickets and face 93 percent of arrests.

Ronnie Tucker was arrested and taken to the Ferguson jail in May 2013. Jail staff informed him that he was being kept pursuant to a warrant in traffic cases from the city of Cool Valley, which paid Ferguson to house its inmate debtors. Tucker was never allowed to shower and spent weeks in the same clothes. He was not given hand soap or allowed to brush his teeth. He and other inmates begged to be allowed to wash themselves, but staff refused. Instead, multiple inmates were forced to sleep on the floor because there were not enough beds to accommodate all the debtors. Tucker was forced to sleep next to a dirty toilet surrounded by walls covered with urine, blood, and mucus.

Keilee Fant is a thirty-seven-year-old single mother. She works as a certified nursing assistant. In the past two decades, the city of Ferguson has jailed Fant more than a dozen times for her inability to make monetary payments on old traffic tickets, including one occasion in which she was held for nearly fifty days without a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, shower, or change of clothes. During that time, Fant missed her father’s funeral. Fant was confined in a cell that lacked basic hygiene (for example, she was not given feminine products for menstruation), medical care, and adequate food. On one occasion, an elderly woman being held was shivering because staff refused to give women more than one blanket each. After Fant allowed the woman to share her blanket, the guards began shouting at the women that they were “stanky-ass dykes” and “dirty whores.” On numerous occasions, guards mocked the women and would shout things like: “You hoes stink” and “You need to wash out your coochies.”

Roelif Carter is a sixty-two-year-old disabled military veteran given tickets by the city of Ferguson more than ten years ago. Each time Carter was held in the Ferguson jail was a humiliating and dangerous experience. He was not permitted a toothbrush or toothpaste and was not permitted to shower or wash his clothes. The water available to inmates, released from an apparatus connected to the top of the toilet, caused Carter to develop a sore throat whenever he drank it. Jail staff also refused to allow Carter the medication that he takes for high blood pressure and the head-pain medication for his brain aneurysm.

Allison Nelson is a twenty-three-year-old woman. She works now at a clothing store making near minimum wage. Nelson has been jailed on two occasions by the city because she has not been able to pay fines and costs from traffic tickets. Because of the threat of jail and constant cycle of increasing debts to the city of Ferguson, Nelson has been afraid to leave her home or even to get into a car as a passenger. Nelson’s dream for years has been to join the navy. After passing the relevant tests as a teenager, she was told by her recruiter that she could not join until she fixed all her unpaid traffic warrants and tickets.

Herbert Nelson Jr. is twenty-six years old. During one of his periods in the Jennings jail, Nelson developed two irritated areas on his leg that became infected and turned into boils the size of eggs. During a later period of incarceration in the Jennings jail, his boils flared and popped, and he was in excruciating pain. Jail staff refused to give him antibiotics, painkillers, or a doctor, even though the pants that he was wearing filled with blood and pus. Nelson now works as a painter. Because of his recent jailings he has lost a number of jobs and finds it difficult to be rehired. On one occasion, a co-worker filled in for Nelson and used the money earned from the job to pay for his release from jail.

Alfred Morris is a disabled veteran who relies on a pension from the Department of Veterans Affairs. The city locked Morris in a cage because he failed to pay fines and costs associated with violations of a municipal ordinance that prohibits people from having friends, relatives, or romantic partners stay overnight in their homes without naming the person on a written document in advance. Ferguson police accused Morris of violating this ordinance after they searched his home and found women’s articles.

Anthony Kimble was arrested and brought to the Ferguson jail in February 2013. The booking officer told him that he would be held in the jail until he paid $600 to the city. After two days, Kimble was informed that the city would accept $500 for his release. After two more days, he was informed that the city would accept $400 for his release. After two more days, Kimble was informed that the city would accept $300. Finally, after it was clear that Kimble could not pay, he was released by jail staff for free. He had spent nearly two weeks in jail and had lost approximately twelve to fifteen pounds.

When she was seventeen years old, Shameika Morris was charged with a minor municipal offense in Ferguson. When she was brought to the jail, the jail staff refused to let her use the bathroom, and Morris urinated on herself in the booking area. Jail staff were upset and retaliated against her by keeping her in jail for more than two weeks. In all of her time in the Ferguson jail, she has only been offered a shower on one occasion — during her first stay, over ten years ago. Many of the women in the jail became chronically dehydrated because they were afraid to drink the water, which has often been yellow in color.

Donyale Thomas was arrested and brought to the Ferguson jail in 2011. Thomas had been a passenger in a car, and officers arrested her when a check on her I.D. revealed an old case. Thomas was suffering at the time from a severe anxiety attack, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Thomas has difficulty being in small, confined spaces. Her mother, frightened for her daughter’s life, attempted to bring her prescription medication for these illnesses, but jail staff refused. On a subsequent occasion, Thomas was overcome with depression from being trapped in a cycle of debt and jailing for traffic tickets in several municipalities, which took her away from her children repeatedly. While languishing in jail in the city of Berkeley because she could not afford to pay for her release, Thomas attempted to commit suicide by strangling herself with her brassiere. She was taken to the hospital after the other women in her cell started screaming.

Zenzoe
Joined:
Jul. 31, 2007 3:01 pm

Comments

Gotta love government.

gumball's picture
gumball
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Dec. 12, 2013 10:02 am

That's not a flaw of government, per se, gumball; it's the fault of for-profit, racist policing and the result of a for-profit judicial system, that is to say, a corrupt legal system and corrupt law enforcement.

Anyway, government is only as good as its hierarchy of values. If those doing the governing have protecting the rich from contributing to the general welfare as their first priority, then laws will be enacted, placing the burden of financing the government on the poor, as has happened in Ferguson. That's a corrupt and unjust first priority.

Where those in power have the general welfare and ethical justice as among their first priorities, then a more equitable system of raising revenue will be enacted, one that includes taxing the rich.

Zenzoe
Joined:
Jul. 31, 2007 3:01 pm

Here's the example of a corrupt judge, the one responsible for much of the misery: Ferguson "Debtors' Prison" Judge Resigns as State Supreme Court Takes Reins.


...Brockmeyer was criticized in the Justice Department report for bringing in millions through "creative" fines and fees and unjustly jailing traffic defendants, while clearing similar tickets for himself and friends. He also reportedly owed $170,000 in unpaid taxes...

Zenzoe
Joined:
Jul. 31, 2007 3:01 pm

My point would be that, unlike private businesses, you do not have a choice when interacting with government.

gumball's picture
gumball
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Dec. 12, 2013 10:02 am
Quote gumball:

My point would be that, unlike private businesses, you do not have a choice when interacting with government.

To appreciate your point, I would need examples, perhaps where populations have a choice interacting with corporations and private businesses, especially when those corporations or businesses are corrupt and all-powerful (think Monsanto or Shell Oil), compared to supposedly not having a choice with government. For example, too, when do we not have a choice with government? Government can be forced to clean up its act, via voting, the courts, and media shaming (as the lawsuit suing Ferguson over debtor's prison demonstrates), whereas corporations and businesses, being privately owned, can behave badly, yet they have no ethical obligation to please anybody but their shareholders. The public-good can go to hell, as far as they're concerned.

Look what happens when corporations own prisons too. The thing is, please don't ask me to accept a false dilemma here.

Another angle: you might consider what choice citizens have, when corporations and businesses collude with government to bend the law, benefiting private profit, corporations and business interests. ALEC comes to mind.

Please also consider Ferguson as an example of the equal culpability of private businesses in the injustice that is the racist for-profit system there:


In modern-day debtors' prisons, courts team with private sector

...More than 1,000 courts using private companies sentence hundreds of thousands of Americans to probation each year, according to a report published last year by the Human Rights Watch, which called the trend an "offender-funded" model of privatized probation. In Georgia alone, 30 probation companies are working in more than 600 courts throughout the state, allowing them to collect almost $100 million in fines, court costs and restitution for those courts, and collections in 2012, the report noted...

...Because for-profit probation companies tack on their own fees to the original municipal fines, that adds to the hurdles that people must jump over to try to erase the debt...

Zenzoe
Joined:
Jul. 31, 2007 3:01 pm
Quote gumball:

My point would be that, unlike private businesses, you do not have a choice when interacting with government.

You do not have a choice when interacting with assholes, whether they be government or private businesses. When you are being terrorized , it doesn't matter whether it's a government or business doing the terrorizing. I would love to see you "decide" not to participate in your own incarceration in a private prison or jail.

Bush_Wacker's picture
Bush_Wacker
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Jun. 25, 2011 6:53 am

Thanks, Bush_Wacker. That's putting it so well, and succinctly.

Seems like we're having a national awakening about the ugly side of America's justice system, or injustice system, to be more accurate. Lately, I've noticed a number of articles about police corruption and brutality, that is, police-state realities, past and present. For example, Democracy Now had a segment today about reparations for victims of police torture in Chicago. But that doesn't mean the brutality and injustice ended way back when; yesterday, I started reading an article in Harper's entitled, Beyond the Broken Window-- William Bratton and the new police state (will finish later today and perhaps post some of it). Then Rollingstone had an article in March entitled, Why Is This Man Still in Jail -- Half a lifetime ago, Philadelphia cops put Tony Wright away for a brutal crime he didn't commit. DNA tests have exonerated him. But he's still not free, an especially beautifully-written and shocking exposé of injustice in Philadelphia, starting in the late 1960s and continuing.

Looks like our justice system is heading for a curve, like that Amtrak train, out of control and about to derail.

Zenzoe
Joined:
Jul. 31, 2007 3:01 pm

It isn't JUST the justice system, it's the on going systemic the racism in this country that leads to a justice practice that puts the already most marginalized peoples into a vortex that has no escape.

rs allen
Joined:
Mar. 15, 2012 4:55 pm
Quote rs allen:

It isn't JUST the justice system, it's the on going systemic the racism in this country that leads to a justice practice that puts the already most marginalized peoples into a vortex that has no escape.

Absolutely correct, rs— racism... and classism too, I might add.

"...that puts the already most marginalized peoples into a vortex that has no escape"— beautiful statement, about an ugly reality. Awesome comment, rs.

What's to be done? It's unbearable. And I'm only looking at it from afar...

Zenzoe
Joined:
Jul. 31, 2007 3:01 pm
Quote Bush_Wacker:
Quote gumball:

My point would be that, unlike private businesses, you do not have a choice when interacting with government.

You do not have a choice when interacting with assholes, whether they be government or private businesses. When you are being terrorized , it doesn't matter whether it's a government or business doing the terrorizing. I would love to see you "decide" not to participate in your own incarceration in a private prison or jail.

The thing is, only government can put you in jail.

gumball's picture
gumball
Joined:
Dec. 12, 2013 10:02 am

Tickets have been expensive in CA for years. Govt uses fee surcharges to give the appearance of lower taxes to the public Look at the breakdown below.

http://cironline.org/reports/california-drives-traffic-fines-fees-earmar...

Base fine$100State penalty assessment$100County penalty assessment$70DNA identification fund$50Court construction$50State surcharge$20Emergency medical services$20Emergency medical air transportation$4Court operations$40Conviction assessment$35Night court$1Total ticket$490Traffic school$59Total cost$549

DynoDon
Joined:
Jun. 29, 2012 9:24 am
Quote gumball:
Quote Bush_Wacker:
Quote gumball:

My point would be that, unlike private businesses, you do not have a choice when interacting with government.

You do not have a choice when interacting with assholes, whether they be government or private businesses. When you are being terrorized , it doesn't matter whether it's a government or business doing the terrorizing. I would love to see you "decide" not to participate in your own incarceration in a private prison or jail.

The thing is, only government can put you in jail.

Not quite true, gumball:

Locked Up for Being Poor -- How private debt collectors contribute to a cycle of jail, unemployment, and poverty

[/quote]

Zenzoe
Joined:
Jul. 31, 2007 3:01 pm

It is government in that case that is doing the fining, arresting and imprisoning.

gumball's picture
gumball
Joined:
Dec. 12, 2013 10:02 am

There is also a conflict of interest when you have judges who get paid with the fines they levy. States starve the courts and they come up with all these fees to pay for the courts.

DynoDon
Joined:
Jun. 29, 2012 9:24 am
Quote DynoDon:

Tickets have been expensive in CA for years. Govt uses fee surcharges to give the appearance of lower taxes to the public Look at the breakdown below.

http://cironline.org/reports/california-drives-traffic-fines-fees-earmar...

Base fine$100State penalty assessment$100County penalty assessment$70DNA identification fund$50Court construction$50State surcharge$20Emergency medical services$20Emergency medical air transportation$4Court operations$40Conviction assessment$35Night court$1Total ticket$490Traffic school$59Total cost$549

I was hoping to say that at least California doesn't put people in debtor's prison, but it turns out I'd be wrong to make such a claim: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Debtors'_prison

It’s Not Just Ferguson -- Cities nationwide are criminalizing black people to pay the bills.

I remember being horrified in reading Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, back when I was a young girl. It seemed outrageous then, and I couldn't imagine that such irrational "justice" would ever be a reality in modern society. But here it is, alive and well today.

Zenzoe
Joined:
Jul. 31, 2007 3:01 pm
Quote DynoDon:

There is also a conflict of interest when you have judges who get paid with the fines they levy. States starve the courts and they come up with all these fees to pay for the courts.

Fines do not go directly to the court, they go to the general fund of the government entitiy.

gumball's picture
gumball
Joined:
Dec. 12, 2013 10:02 am

http://www.courts.ca.gov/23715.htm

Fact Check: Anatomy of a Traffic Ticket in California

How is the amount determined and where does the money go?

The calculation for a traffic ticket in California, and determining where the money goes once collected, is complex. The cost of a traffic ticket includes a base fine amount plus penalty assessments and fees created by the Legislature to fund specific state and local activities.

The Base Fine
The Judicial Council sets the standard bail amount and base fine for traffic tickets when the Legislature has not set a mandatory base fine. Typically, the base fine for a traffic violation is about 25 to 35 percent of the maximum fine allowed by statute. In general, the base fine portion of traffic tickets has not changed or increased for nearly 20 years. The base fine is collected for, and distributed to, either the local government or local government and county.

The increase in the total cost of a traffic ticket—above the base fine—in California over the last 20 years is primarily the result of the addition of mandatory penalty assessments and fees created by the Legislature and required by statute. In addition, when a person appears in court to contest a ticket, the base fine imposed at sentencing may be reduced or increased within the statutory limits by a judicial officer when deciding the case.

Penalties and Fees
Penalty assessments are calculated from the base fine for the traffic ticket and are part of the punishment that is imposed for the violation. The penalties collected are distributed to many different city, county, and state funds established by the local government and Legislature for activities such as DNA collection in criminal cases, emergency medical services, local criminal justice facilities, emergency medical air transportation, and court facility maintenance and construction. Unlike penalties, any state or local fees added to the base fine for traffic tickets are non-punitive and are imposed to pay for costs of operating the justice system.

Special Distribution
The standard distribution of money collected for a traffic ticket can be changed in several circumstances. For example, if a case is approved for traffic violator school, the distribution of the money that is collected changes significantly, with a majority of the money being distributed to the county. Also, specific violations, such as running a red light, can have special statutory distributions that differ from the standard calculation. Moreover, during a state budget crisis, the Legislature may borrow from or divert the fees collected for a specific use, such as court construction, to the State General Fund.

DynoDon
Joined:
Jun. 29, 2012 9:24 am

Impeachment: The Difference Between Nixon & Trump

Thom plus logo There is a very simple reason why some Republicans participated in the impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon, but none have so far broken ranks against Trump. That reason is the US Supreme Court.
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