Pay up or go to jail: how a Mississippi town resurrected the debtors’ prison
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.