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The Prison Industrial Complex in Mississippi

1930’s pictures of black men on the Chain Gang in the South are a icon of how black people were persecuted and forced to work in virtual slavery under Jim Crow.

While the Chin Gang may (or not) be gone, incarceration as a social tool and meas of oppression is not. Mississippi has third highest incarceration rate in the US, placing it solidly ahead of even repressive regimes around the world and communist countries.

Mississippi Jails Are Losing Inmates, And Local Officials Are ‘Devastated’ By The Loss Of Revenue

“If they do not send us our inmates back, we can’t make it,” said one county supervisor.

County officials across Mississippi are warning of job losses and deep deficits as local jails are being deprived of the state inmates needed to keep them afloat. The culprit, say local officials, is state government and private prisons, which are looking to boost their own revenue as sentencing and drug-policy reforms are sending fewer bodies into the correctional system.

In the late 1990s, as the overcrowded Mississippi prison system buckled under the weight of mass incarceration, the state asked local governments to build local correctional institutions to house state prisoners. It was billed as a win-win: The Mississippi Department of Correction would foot the bill for each prisoner, and the counties would get good jobs guarding them. The state guaranteed that the local jails would never be less than 80 percent occupied, and the locals would get a 3 percent boost in compensation each year.

After a few years, say local officials, the state offered a new deal: Instead of the 3 percent bump, they would give the locals more and more prisoners, thus boosting total revenue. Today, the state pays $29.74 per day per prisoner to the regional facilities, a deal that worked for everybody as long as the buildings were stuffed full with bodies.

Scott Strickland, president of the Stone County Board of Supervisors, said reforms at the state and local levels have shrunk the prison population. “Federal laws took some part in that — allowing prisoners to serve only a certain percentage of their term,” he said. “Also, they’ve reduced prison sentences for certain drug-related offenses.”

As the wave of mass incarceration begins to recede, the Mississippi controversy has local and state officials talking openly about how harmful locking up fewer people up will be for the economy, confirming the suspicions of those who have argued that mass incarceration is not merely a strategy directed at crime prevention. “Under the administrations of Reagan and Clinton, incarceration, a social tool used for punishment, also became a major job creator,” Antonio Moore, a producer of the documentary “Crack in the System,” wrote recently.

“I don’t think it necessarily started out this way, but the inmate population has become the backbone of some of these counties that are involved,” said Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Marshall Fisher as the controversy heated up.

The prisoners have value beyond the per diem, county officials add, when they can be put to work. State prisoners do garbage pickup, lawn maintenance and other manual labor that taxpayers would otherwise have to pay for. Convict labor has made it easier for local governments to absorb never-ending cuts in state funding, as tea party legislators and governors slash budgets in the name of conservative government.

The state knows it, and now demands that local jails house state convicts who perform labor for free, George County Supervisor Henry Cochran told The Huffington Post. The counties take the deal. “You’re either gonna go up on everybody’s garbage bill, or you’ve gotta house those inmates,” Cochran said. “You’re using that inmate labor, so [taxpayers are] getting a little good out of that inmate for their tax dollars. You either gotta hire a bunch of employees or keep that inmate. It’s like making a deal with the devil.”

 
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Posted by on April 15, 2016 in The New Jim Crow

 

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Painting Injustice in Louisiana

This one starts with the case of Mac Phipps, jailed in a state, Louisiana,  that incarcerates more of it’s citizens than any country in the world since Pol Pot’s Cambodia.

Her Son Is In Prison, And She Paints The Faces Of A Broken Justice System

The brushstrokes in Sheila Phipps‘ paintings tell the story of a broken criminal justice system in Louisiana — a state notorious for having the highest incarceration rate in the world.

It’s a mission that Phipps, a visual artist who’s been painting since the 1980s, took up after her son, McKinley “Mac” Phipps, a former No Limit hip-hop artist, wassentenced to 30 years in prison for a 2000 nightclub shooting.

“My son was wrongfully convicted in 2001 and is now serving time for a crime he didn’t commit,” Sheila Phipps said.

The visual artist said that in the beginning she could barely face the pain of her son spending such a large portion of his life behind bars. To cope, she went to her art room, took a brush in hand, and in a series of meticulous strokes captured the element missing from her life — her son — on canvas.

“I was frustrated, and it helped me deal with the stress of everything,” Phipps told The Huffington Post.

When Phipps finished the painting of her son, she initially viewed it as a personal accomplishment. After all, it was intended to be therapeutic — a brief escape from the harsh reality of the situation. However, an emptiness remained. It prompted her to capture not only her son’s story but also those of other inmates in Louisiana who are in similar situations.

“I knew my son was not the only one who was a victim of the criminal justice system,” she said. “So I started to research other cases where individuals were convicted with questionable evidence or received excessive sentences.”

Phipps said her son ultimately became the inspiration behind her series of portraits of incarcerated men. Although she never intended her personal expression for public view, she gradually began showing her paintings as they emerged, gathering them in a series titled “Injustice Xhibition.”

The exhibit features seven incarcerated men: McKinley “Mac” Phipps Jr., Warren Scott III, Jerome “Skee” Smith, Earl Truvia, Stanley Stirgus, Rogers LaCaze Sr., and Jamil Joyner. …Read More Here

 
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Posted by on March 31, 2016 in BlackLivesMatter

 

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Why Obama Needs to Nominate a Liberal Judge

Obama hopefully has gotten to the stage to cut the crap about making peace with Republican bigots. The New Jim Crow was subsidized and supported by the 5-4 conservative court.

As to Scalia’s Lawn Ornament…

The Human Toll of Antonin Scalia’s Time on the Court

Blacks, Latinos, and poor whites suffered because of his draconian approach to criminal punishment.

In the days since Antonin Scalia’s death, he has been duly recognized as one of the most impactful justices in the Supreme Court’s history. A critical part of his troubling legacy has long been staring us in the face, although it finally started receiving the public scrutiny it deserves in recent years. As draconian punishments became the norm over the last three decades, the Supreme Court largely rubber-stamped these practices. Justice Scalia played a key role in this process, as his hardline stances on criminal punishment significantly contributed to mass incarceration, numerous executions, and systemic racial discrimination. Scalia was an outspoken supporter of harsh punishments and wanted the court to take an even more hands-off attitude toward so-called “tough on crime” laws.

Not long after he made it onto the court in 1986, Scalia’s influence on these issues began to be felt. In McCleskey v. Kemp, one of the first cases he heard, anti-death penalty advocates brought compelling evidence of pervasive racial discrimination in Georgia’s administration of capital punishment. A sophisticated statistical study demonstrated that sentencing was tied to the race of the victim and offender. All other factors being equal, blacks who killed whites were the likeliest to receive a death sentence. Justice Scalia was unfazed. During oral arguments, he derisivelyasked: “What if you do a statistical study that shows beyond question that people who are naturally shifty-eyed are to a disproportionate extent convicted in criminal cases, does that make the criminal process unlawful?”

John Charles Boger, who represented the black death-row prisoner in McCleskey, responded by pointing to the obvious: “This is not some sort of statistical fluke or aberration. We have a century-old pattern in the state of Georgia of animosity [toward black-Americans].” Scalia and four other justices nonetheless chose to analyze discrimination out of its social context, including in cases from Southern states with a lengthy history of slavery, segregation, and lynchings.

Scalia was in the majority as the court held that statistical proof of systemic discrimination in the death penalty is irrelevant. A defendant must instead prove intentional discrimination in his own case, an almost impossible standard without considering systemic patterns. Many experts consider McCleskey among the worst Supreme Court decisions of all-time. It largely closed the door to statistical evidence as a means of challenging systemic discrimination in criminal punishment.

Scalia would also play a significant role as the Supreme Court licensed ruthless sentences leading America to world record incarceration levels. He wrote the operative part of the influential Harmelin decision, a 1991 plurality opinion holding that the Eighth Amendment ban on “cruel and unusual punishments” does not require that a prison sentence be “proportional” to the crime. The court thus upheld a life-sentence for cocaine possession.

Scalia again was in the majority in Lockyer v. Andrade, a 2003 case upholding a 50-year-to-life sentence under California’s three-strikes-law for a man who shoplifted videotapes worth $153 because he had prior convictions for petty theft, burglary, and transporting marijuana. Erwin Chemerinsky, who zealously represented the prisoner,was in tears as the media asked him about his reaction to the court’s inhumane decision.

McCleskey, Harmelin, and Lockyer were all 5–4 decisions that could have been decided otherwise if Scalia had thought differently. Naturally, he was not a swing vote but a sure one for harsh justice.

While the justices might not have been able to stop mass incarceration singlehandedly, they definitely could have limited it. Indeed, the court’s belated decision in Brown v. Plata, has contributed to reducing California’s incarceration rate. In this 2011 case, the court ordered California to reduce its dramatically overcrowded prison population because “depriv[ing] prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity.” In a vehement dissent, Scalia charged that this was “a judicial travesty” and that the majority was “wildly” overstepping its authority.

Similarly, he fiercely dissented in other rare cases where the court decided to check ruthless punishments. If it had been up to Scalia, it would still be constitutional to execute mentally retarded people or teenagers, not to mention sentence teenagers to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for homicide or any other crime.

This aspect of his legacy has been overshadowed by the common misconception that “at least Scalia was quite fair to criminal defendants.” To his credit, he concluded in several procedural cases that juries, not judges, must decide if all facts leading to harsher punishment are proved beyond reasonable doubt. In various other cases, he found that police searches went too far. But these are exceptions. He regularly took an extremely narrow view of due process, such as when he argued that the Constitution does not create “a right to demand judicial consideration of newly discovered evidence of innocence.” Scalia further suggested that executing an innocent person would not be unconstitutional per se. More than 1,300 prisonerswere executed while Scalia was on the Supreme Court though he was persuaded that his colleagues created unjust procedural hurdles to executions by baselessly expanding the rights of death row prisoners.

Had Scalia had his way, far more people would have been executed during his tenure and the court would have adopted an even more accommodating approach to mass incarceration. In his view, merciless punishments were just deserts for “evildoers.” Hescoffed when fellow justices advanced a more nuanced view of criminal behavior or occasionally suggested that draconian punishments were dehumanizing. He was certain that the court already cared too much about people who faced the death penalty or endless prison sentences. Justices who disagreed with him were judicial activists who refused to defer to elected branches of government. Of course, Scalia did not do so himself in multiple cases. Tellingly, he voted to strike down campaign finance legislation in Citizens United. He likewise voted twice, unsuccessfully, in favor of eviscerating the democratically enacted Affordable Care Act…More Here

 

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Death by Incarceration – Why Are Black Women Arrested For Minor Violations Dying in Jail?

Somehow a 16 year old 100lb black girl is more threat to the system than a white 40 year old mass murderer…

16 Year Old Gynna McMillen

Why Are Black Girls and Women Dying in Police Custody?

Gynna McMillen was brought into the Lincoln Village Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, on January 10, 2016, after police were called to her mother’s house about a “domestic incident.” The next morning she was found unresponsive in a cell. What happened to her? Why is she dead after less than 24 hours in the detention facility? These are questions being asked by Gynna’s family and others concerned about the deaths of Black people in police custody.

Slowly, investigators are releasing information, and what we know so far is horrifying. Gynna McMillen, a 16-year-old Black girl, died in a detention center where staff used martial arts to restrain her when she refused to remove her sweatshirt. Gynna McMillen died while isolated in a cell. Gynna McMillen died alone: No one followed the protocol to check on her every 15 minutes.

Black children have always faced disproportionately brutal treatment in jail. “Opportunities Lost: Racial Disparities in Juvenile Justice in Kentucky and Identified Needs for Systems Change,” a 2009 issue brief written and published by Kentucky Youth Advocates, details disproportionate contact with children of color at every level of the juvenile legal system, from complaints against youth to arrest and detainment. Despite representing only 9.5 percent of the Kentucky youth population, African-American youth are more than twice as likely as white youth to have complaints filed against them, four times more likely to be detained during any point in court processing and more than four times as likely to have their cases referred to adult courts.

In 2013, the rate of African-American youth detained in juvenile detention, correctional and/or residential facilities was 495 per 100,000, the highest of any racial or ethnic group, according to National Kids Count data. For African-American girls specifically, the rate was 78 per 100,000, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

While the arrest rate has declined for boys in the juvenile legal system, it has not fallen as sharply for girls. African-American girls represent 33.2 percent of girls who are detained, although they are only 14 percent of the population. Many incarcerated girls have experienced one or more traumas, including abuse, poverty, mental illness and being funneled through child welfare systems. Instead of receiving the help they need, girls are routed into the juvenile legal system because of their victimization. Sometimes, their response to trauma is itself criminalized. As Monique Morris wrote in America’s Wire, African-American girls are often criminalized for qualities associated with survival, such as being loud and defiant….Read The Rest Here

 
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Posted by on February 9, 2016 in BlackLivesMatter

 

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Building the Carceral State – John Dilulio and the “Superpredators” Myth

The violent 1990’s spurred the development of a number of racial myths, from the mythical “Wilding” of NYC Youth resulting in the conviction and incarceration of 5 innocent black teens, to a Social scientist by the name of John Diiulio sensationally predicting the emergence of young sociopathic “superpredators” who would flood the streets with blood.

Like most myths – none of that ever happened. And it’s cling on to the American white psyche had more to do with racism than reality.

White racist conservatives scaring white people…Again.

12th Century “Wilding”

John Diilulio’s “Superpredator” Fear-Mongering Changed the US Criminal Legal System and Locked Away a Generation of Black Youth

Reginald Dwayne Betts – an “escapee” from the American Prison Complex

This is a story about the ginned-up “superpredator” scare of the 1990s, the imprisonment of tens of thousands of black youth, and the survival of Reginald Dwayne Betts.

In the early 1990s, John Dilulio, a Princeton political scientist, coined the term “superpredator” to call attention to “stone-cold predators,” “kids that have absolutely no respect for human life and no sense of the future.” DiIulio and co-authors described these young people as “fatherless, Godless, and jobless” and as “radically impulsive, brutally remorseless youngsters, including ever more teenage boys, who murder, assault, rob, burglarize, deal deadly drugs, join gun-toting gangs, and create serious [linked] disorders.” Criminologist James A. Fox warned of a juvenile “crime wave storm” and an impending “bloodbath” of teen violence.

Reginald Dwayne Betts was one of the teens caught up in the wave of imprisonment that resulted from these myths. Now, after a long, and sometimes tortuous journey that included eight and a half years in prison, he is now a poet, teacher and law student. He was born months before Ronald Reagan won the White House, and came of age during the Reagan/George H.W. Bush/Bill Clinton administrations, when crack cocaine saturated inner-city streets, fear reigned supreme, the criminalization of young black people became the order of the day, and “lock ’em up and throw away the key” was the criminal legal system’s mantra.

Last year, The New York Times’ “Retro Report” pointed out that the “superpredator jeremiads … proved to be nonsense. They were based on a notion that there would be hordes upon hordes of depraved teenagers resorting to unspeakable brutality, not tethered by conscience … Chaos was upon us, DiIulio proclaimed back then in scholarly articles and television interviews. The demographics, he said, were inexorable. Politicians from both major parties, though more so on the right, picked up the cry. Many news organizations pounced on these sensational predictions and ran with them like a punt returner finding daylight.”

Reality didn’t match the dire superpredator predictions: “Instead of exploding, violence by children sharply declines. Murders committed by those ages 10 to 17 fell by roughly two-thirds from 1994 to 2011, according to statistics kept by the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Mugged by reality, a chastened Mr. DiIulio has offered a mea culpa. ‘Demography,’ he says, ‘is not fate.’ The trouble with his superpredator forecast, he told Retro Report, is that ‘once it was out there, there was no reeling it in.'”

Dilulio’s career, however, took off; he was suddenly viewed as an expert on issues of criminal justice. His reputation was enhanced, he was often quoted by hardliners in both political parties, and, onerous new laws were passed, including state laws allowing 13 and 14 year-olds to be tried as adults. Thousands of juveniles were sent to prison, some for life.

Dilulio later became the first director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives under President George W. Bush. He is currently the Frederic Fox Leadership Professor of Politics, Religion, and Civil Society and Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania.

What did wash over the land was the fear and loathing of black youth; the building of more prisons; the incarceration of a generation of black, poor and minority youth; and the rise of the prison industrial complex.

John Dilulio the right wing racist who helped drive the Prison Complex

Dwayne Betts survived prison and solitary confinement. He has written a memoir, A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison, and two books of poetry, including the recently published Bastards of the Reagan Era. His work has been described as “fierce, lyrical and unsparing.” Betts is a 2010 Soros Justice Fellow, 2011 Radcliffe Fellow, and 2012 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellow, and in 2012, President Obama appointed him to the coordinating council of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. He is now attending Yale Law School.

Nevertheless, Betts remembers the pain of prison well. Betts is a 2010 Soros Justice Fellow, 2011 Radcliffe Fellow, and 2012 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellow, and in 2012, President Obama appointed him to the coordinating council of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Last year, he wrote an essay titled “I Was 16 and in Solitary Before I Ever Even Went to Trial.” In a recent interview, “On Point’s” Tom Ashbrook asked: “Are you scarred for life by eight years in prison?” and Betts answered: “The bigger question is what do you do with the trauma you inherit?” The interview includes a quote from Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Ashbrook noted Betts’ incisive response in his book, Bastards of the Reagan Era: “Had he [Dostoyevsky] said you judge by our crimes, this van runs off the rails and back into the Atlantic from whence we came. But see he didn’t say that. And so what does all this say about America?”

 
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Posted by on November 17, 2015 in The New Jim Crow

 

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Police Chief Support for Smarter Sentencing Act

The US System of incarceration as a system of political and racial control has failed. To begin to straighten the mess out, President Obama has proposed “The Smarter Sentencing Act”.

 

A New Approach to Criminal-Justice Reform

As the Smarter Sentencing Act nears its vote, a new group of police chiefs and prosecutors hopes to influence the debate.

Criminal-justice reform is taking a significant step forward this week. On Wednesday, more than 130 police chiefs and prosecutors announced a new organization with the goal of curtailing mass incarceration. President Obama willhost a discussion with its members and the Marshall Project on Thursday, while the Senate Judiciary Committee plans to vote on the Smarter Sentencing Act, which hopes to reform mandatory-minimum sentencing and the federal prison system.

The group, Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, is a project by the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan policy institute that specializes in legal and criminal-justice issues. The new group’s membership includes NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, Cook County District Attorney Anita Alvarez, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, and Philadelphia police commissioner Charles Ramsey.

“We know firsthand that more incarceration does not keep our country safe,” Garry McCarthy and Ronal Serpas, the group’s co-chairs, wrote in a USA Todayop-ed on Wednesday. “Our experience and research show that good crime control policy is not about locking up everyone. It’s about locking up the right people.”

The group’s four main issues draw upon many of the themes that have animated criminal-justice reform. They note that “more than 50 percent of prison and jail inmates have a diagnosed mental illness, and 65 percent of prisoners meet medical criteria for substance abuse and addiction,” citing successful efforts to rework the system in Miami’s courts. They praise California’s Proposition 47, which reduced a broad swath of nonviolent drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, as well as sentencing reforms in Georgia, Kentucky, and New York. And they cite the need for closer relationships between law-enforcement agencies and the communities they serve…

 
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Posted by on October 23, 2015 in BlackLivesMatter

 

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Highway Robbery…And Debtors Prison

One of the problems with the Great White Wing Tax Giveaway is the municipalities are increasingly strapped for cash to pay for basic services. Heaven forbid that the very clowns who voted to cut taxes to the point their jurisdictions are insolvent (Louisiana and Kansas to mention a few states whose Republican Governors and legislatures have led them down that desolate garden path), pay any of the costs.As such, along with other failed draconian measures like requiring that Welfare recipients be Drug Tested (In Tennessee, Out of more than 16,000 applicants from the beginning of July through the end of 2014, just 37 tested positive for illegal drug use, meaning only .2% – which is mirrored by results in other White Right states), the concept supported by the White Wingers has been to shift the tax burden onto the poor through increasingly punitive and regressive measures…

Never mind those poor folks wouldn’t be poor if they could afford to pay the bill in the first place, or that the State has become the singular major hurdle for most of these folks to build any sort of financial nest egg to escape poverty.

In most Reprobate run states, this takes the form of massively escalating fines and penalties for civic and traffic fines. Can’t pay your $100 in Car/property tax on time? Well you now owe $300.

Got a Parking Ticket? They used to be $20…Now they are $100. And in the case of one municipality near where I live, they jacked them to $300, until the local businesses complained about the drop in revenue from shoppers who chose to shop elsewhere rather than risk the Meter Nazis. In any event, that Parking Ticket, now $50 – just doubled or tripled if you can’t pay the fine. As extreme, but not uncommon as the situation in Ferguson, Mo, as described in the Ferguson Commission Report, the poor are the overwhelming victims of these punitive measures. Measure which further erode the public trust.

Biloxi, Mississippi, apparently yearning for the long gone days of real slavery – takes it a step further by jailing debtors.

Meaning they have now just lost their $8.00 an hour jobs, putting them further in the hole.

One of the reasons for the American Revolution was just this kind of shit.

Qumotria Kennedy, 36, stands at the baseball field in downtown Biloxi where she works as a contract maintenance employee, making just $10 an hour one to two days per week.

 

A poor single mother seeks justice against Biloxi after she was imprisoned for not paying $400 in court fees, a practice that systematically criminalizes poverty

Qumotria Kennedy, a 36-year-old single mother with teenage kids from Biloxi,Mississippi, was driving around the city with a friend in July when they were pulled over by police for allegedly running a stop sign. Though Kennedy was the passenger, her name was put through a police database that flashed up a warrant for her arrest on charges that she failed to pay $400 in court fines.

The fines were for other traffic violations dating back to 2013. At that time, Kennedy says she told her probation officers – a private company called Judicial Corrections Services Inc (JCS) – that she was so poor there was no way she could find the money.

She worked as a cleaner at the baseball field in downtown Biloxi, earning less than $9,000 a year – well below the federal poverty level for a single person, let alone a mother of two dependent children. Her plea fell on deaf ears: a JCS official told her that unless she paid her fines in full, as well as a $40 monthly fee to JCS for the privilege of having them as her probation officers, she would go to jail – an arrest warrant was duly secured to that effect through the Biloxi municipal court.

Nor was Kennedy’s inability to pay her fines as a result of poverty taken into account by the police officer when he stopped her in July, she said. Discovering the arrest warrant, he promptly put her in handcuffs and took her to a Gulfport jail.

There she was told that unless she came up with all the money – by now the figure had bloated as a result of JCS’s monthly fees to $1,000 – she would stay in jail. And so she did. Kennedy spent the next five days and nights in a holding cell.

“It was filthy,” she told the Guardian. “The toilet wasn’t working, there was no hot water and I was put in the cell with a woman who had stabbed her husband, so I was scared the entire time. For the first three days, they wouldn’t even let me tell my kids where I was.”

Kennedy is the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit lodged on Wednesday with a federal district court in Gulfport against the city of Biloxi, its police department, the municipal court system and the private probation company JCS. The filing, drawn up by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), claims that the agencies collectively conspired to create a modern form of debtors’ prison as a ruse to extract cash from those least able to afford it – the city’s poor.

In a statement, the city of Biloxi said it had not yet seen the lawsuit but insisted that it treated all defendants fairly. “We believe the ACLU is mistaken about the process in Biloxi,” the city said. “The court has used community service in cases where defendants are unable to pay their fines.”

A request for comment from the Guardian to JCS was not immediately answered.

Kennedy v City of Biloxi discloses that between September 2014 and March this year, at least 415 people were put in jail under warrants charging them with failure to pay fines owed to the city. According to court records, none of these 415 people had the money available when they were locked up.

Nusrat Choudhury, an ACLU attorney involved in the lawsuit, called the Biloxi system “a debtors’ prison from the dark ages”. She said that people were being “arrested at traffic stops and in their homes, taken to jail and subjected to a jailhouse shakedown. They are told that unless they pay the full amount they will stay inside for days”.

That’s not just an idle threat. One of the plaintiffs in Kennedy v City of Biloxi, a 51-year-old homeless man named Richard Tillery, spent 30 days in jail for failure to pay fines for misdemeanors that mainly related to his homelessness and poverty. Another of the plaintiffs, Joseph Anderson, 52, who was physically disabled having had four heart attacks, was handcuffed in front of his girlfriend and her son and put in jail for seven nights for failure to pay a $170 police ticket for speeding.

Debtors’ prisons were abolished in the United States almost two centuries ago. The informal practice of incarcerating people who cannot pay fines or fees was also explicitly outlawed by the US supreme court in 1983 in a ruling that stated that to punish an individual for their poverty was a violation of the 14th amendment of the US constitution that ensures equal protection under the law.

In that judgment, the nation’s highest court ordered all authorities across the country to consider an individual’s ability to pay before jailing them or sentencing them to terms of imprisonment. Yet the plaintiffs in the Biloxi lawsuit all found themselves carted straight to jail without any prior legal hearing and with no representation by a lawyer – a fast-tracking to detention that the complaint argues is a flagrant abuse of the supreme court’s ruling, now more than 30 years old.

The pattern of judicial behavior outlined in Kennedy v City of Biloxi is replicated throughout the US as local authorities seeking new revenue sources jail their poor citizens, allegedly as a way of intimidating them to hand over money they do not have. In 2010, the ACLU exposed similar practices they say are akin to modern-day debtors’ prisons in Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio and Washington. Lawsuits have followed, with Georgia and Washington both being sued this year.

At its most extreme, the incarceration of poor debtors can cost them their lives. Last month David Stojcevski, 32, died in a Detroit jail 16 days into a 30-day sentence for failing to pay a $772 fine for careless driving – a sum which he could not afford, his family said. Ray Staten died in 2011 in the same Gulfport jail in which Qumotria Kennedy was held five days after he was locked up for failure to pay a $409 court fine.

There is no nationwide database of the syndrome of pay-or-stay incarceration, but Choudhury said that anecdotal evidence pointed to a growth in the practice in recent years. “We see cities relying increasingly on court fines and fees as a way of generating revenue.”

In Biloxi, a town of 44,000, the amount of money raised is disclosed in the budget of the city’s municipal court general fund. In the 2014-15 budget it was $1.27m; in the 2015-2016 budget it had risen to $1.45m.

Yet census data from the American Community Survey shows that the percentage of the city’s population that lives below the federal poverty level doubled between 2009 and 2013, from 13% to 28%.

That makes people like Qumotria Kennedy increasingly vulnerable to the trap set for them – pay up or go to jail. As a result of her jail time in July, she lost her job at the MGM Park baseball fields having failed to turn up for work and currently she only gets one or two days cleaning a week.

A judge at the municipal court placed her on 12 months’ probation under a new private company – JCS having ceased to operate in Mississippi – and she is still clocking up an additional $40 a month in fees owing to them. Her current burden to the city, rising with every month that passes, stands at $1,251; unless she can find a new, well-paying job and begin to pay off the fines soon, she faces a return to the holding cell.

“The probation person told me if I don’t pay it, I will be arrested again sooner or later,” Kennedy said. “I don’t believe this is right. I just hope other people in the world don’t get treated like I have.”

 

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