Shutting Down Debtors’ Prisons

Although debtors’ prisons were banned in the U.S. in 1833, Equal Justice Under Law has uncovered modern-day debtors’ prisons that target people who are poor. Cities are unconstitutionally using local courts and jails to generate millions of dollars in profits off the backs of residents who are poor.

Equal Justice Under Law has won settlements in Montgomery, Alabama; Jennings, Missouri; and Jackson, Mississippi that benefited thousands of class members, while our lawsuits in Ferguson, Missouri and New Orleans, Louisiana are on track to help thousands more.

Mississippi Debtors’ Prisons

 Equal Justice Under Law and the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law filed a major class action federal civil rights lawsuit challenging a forced labor camp and debtors’ prison used by the City of Jackson, Mississippi. The City calls its unconstitutional scheme its “pay or stay” program.

Our clients are impoverished and destitute people thrown in jail for months to “sit out” monetary debts to the City of Jackson from old traffic and misdemeanor cases. Those who are able are told to “work off” their debts at $58 per day on a government-run Penal Farm. Those who are disabled and unable to work are forced to languish in jail for months watching their debts decrease by $25 per day. These atrocities are visited disproportionately on the black community of Jackson. The Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments were enacted to prohibit forced labor and debtors’ prisons.

In 2016, our lawsuit successfully brought an end to Jackson’s debtors’ prison.


Missouri Debtors’ Prisons

For many years, the cities of Ferguson and Jennings have used their local courts, jails, and police forces to generate millions of dollars in profit off the backs of their most impoverished residents. The pursuit of profit has entirely changed the nature of local policing and local government. For example, in 2014, Ferguson averaged 3.62 arrest warrants per household and 2.2 arrest warrants for every adult, mostly in cases involving unpaid debt for traffic tickets.

Once locked in the jails of Ferguson and Jennings, debtors endure grotesque, dungeon-like conditions. Human beings languish in cells covered in blood, mucus, and feces without access to soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, laundry, medical care, exercise, adequate food, natural light, books, television, or legal materials. They are told that they will be kept in jail indefinitely unless they or their families come up with arbitrary and constantly changing amounts of money to buy their freedom. Desperate inmates and their families frantically borrow money to get their loved ones out of jail, only to find out that their debts have increased from new fees. The cycle repeats itself for years.

These practices have devastated the impoverished people of Ferguson and Jennings and created a culture of enormous fear and resentment toward local government. Similar practices throughout the St. Louis region have led to four suicides in just the past five months in local jails by people who were too poor to afford to pay for their release.

In partnership with the St. Louis non-profit organization ArchCity Defenders and professors from Saint Louis University School of Law Clinical Programs, Equal Justice Under Law exposed two of the most flagrant and profitable debtors’ prisons schemes in the country.

We have already achieved victory in our Jennings case. The $4.7 million settlement will benefit over 3,000 class members. Our Ferguson case is also headed toward a successful resolution.


Alabama Debtors’ Prisons

In March 2014, we filed a class action lawsuitMitchell et al. v. City of Montgomery — in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama against the City of Montgomery for its operation of a local debtors’ prison. For at least the past several years, Montgomery has been illegally jailing hundreds of its poorest people for unpaid debts, usually from traffic tickets, despite the Constitution’s guarantee that no person can be jailed simply for being too poor to pay.

Montgomery’s debtors’ prison scheme required each of the Plaintiffs either to pay the fines immediately or to “sit out” her or his debt in the city jail at a rate of $50 per day. Once locked in the City’s jail, the Plaintiffs were told that they could reduce their time in jail by working off their debts for an additional $25 per day if they agreed to perform janitorial tasks, including cleaning city offices, scrubbing feces and blood from jail floors, and wiping the jail bars inside their overcrowded cells.

Equal Justice Under Law obtained a preliminary injunction on May 1, 2014, barring Montgomery from jailing three of its clients who were at imminent risk of being jailed. After the order, Montgomery released dozens of people from its local jail who had been too poor to pay traffic fines.

On November 17, 2014, the federal court issued a landmark injunction enforcing a settlement agreement reached by Equal Justice Under Law and the City. The injunction reforms the entire City court system, barring the City from jailing its poorest people for their inability to pay their debts to the City. The injunction also stops the City from privatizing its probation and debt collection services for at least three years, ending the City’s use of the illegal and unconscionable practice of “private probation,” a scheme in which a for-profit company with a financial incentive in the outcome of court cases had been allowed by the City to make enormous profits by charging the poor onerous fees in addition to their debts and then asking the City to jail impoverished people when they could not pay.


Louisiana Debtors’ Prisons

In September 2015, we filed a major class action lawsuit in federal court in New Orleans.  The suit alleges widespread and systemic violations of basic human and civil rights in the New Orleans legal system.

Every government actor in the local legal system — the District Attorney, the Sheriff, all of the judges, and the Public Defender — all depend on criminal convictions and high money bonds to fund themselves.  This system is intolerable and has devastated the poorest people in New Orleans.  Despite the blatant illegality of this system, it has persisted for decades because everyone takes a cut and because its victims are impoverished people and people of color.

Equal Justice Under Law will always continue to fight on behalf of people who are discriminated against simply because of their poverty.

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