Modern day debtors prison? Mississippi makes people work to pay off debt

During her shifts at a Church’s Chicken, Annita Husband looked like the other employees. She wore the same blue and red polo shirt, greeted the same customers, and slung the same fried chicken and biscuits.

But after clocking out, Husband, a mother in her 40s, had to wait for a white van with barred windows and the seal of the Mississippi Department of Corrections on its sides. It delivered her to the Flowood Restitution Center, a motel converted into a jail surrounded by razor wire, nestled among truck stops and an outlet mall. Here, Husband slept in a room with seven other women, sharing a mirror to get ready in the mornings, enduring strip searches for contraband at night. 

A judge sentenced Husband to the restitution center in 2015 to pay off almost $13,000 she owed from an embezzlement conviction in 2009. The corrections department would not release her until she earned enough money at her $7.25-an-hour part-time job to clear her debts and cover $11 a day for “room and board” at Flowood. 

“If I wasn’t at work, I was in prison,” Husband said. 

The corrections department took her paychecks, she said, giving her back just $10 a week — all in quarters — so she could buy things like soap and deodorant.

The State of Mississippi had locked Husband into a modern-day debtors prison. She had other plans.

Mississippi appears to be the only state where judges lock people up for an indefinite time while they work to earn money to pay off court-ordered debts. While there is no comprehensive data, legal experts who study fines, fees and restitution say Mississippi is unusual at the very least.

“We don’t know of any other states that have a program quite like Mississippi’s,” said Sharon Brett, a senior staff attorney with Harvard’s Criminal Justice Policy Program.

A handful of states experimented with restitution programs starting in the 1970s, but abandoned them as expensive and ineffective. 

Not Mississippi. Judges have sentenced hundreds of people a year to four restitution centers around the state, almost always ordering the inmates to stay until they pay off court fees, fines and restitution to victims, according to four years of government records analyzed by Mississippi Today and The Marshall Project.

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People sent to the centers had been sentenced for felonies but didn’t commit violent crimes, according to the program rules. When we tracked down the cases of more than 200 people confined there on January 1, 2019, we found that most originally got suspended sentences, meaning they did not have to go to prison. 

They didn’t usually owe a lot of money. Half the people living in the centers had debts of less than $3,515. One owed just $656.50. Though in arrears on fines and court fees, many didn’t need to pay restitution at all—at least 20 percent of them were convicted of drug possession.

But inmates spent an average of nearly four months — and up to five years — at the centers, working for private employers to earn enough to satisfy the courts. Meanwhile their costs continued to balloon, since as they had to pay for room and board, transportation to their jobs, and medical care.

They didn’t get paid much. Between 2016 and 2018, workers at the centers made an average of  $6.76 an hour in take home pay, according to our analysis of state data.

It’s a futile system that penalizes the poorest residents of the poorest state in the country, said Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi.

 “Debtors prisons are an effective way of collecting money—as is kidnapping,” he said. “But there are constitutional, public policy and moral barriers to such a regime.”

Many states are reconsidering the practice of jailing the poor, especially because of its inordinate impact on people of color. Since 2018, Mississippi has required judges to find that people willfully failed to make court-ordered payments before sending them to jail or prison. 

But that hasn’t affected the number of people entering Mississippi’s restitution-center program, which our reporting shows mostly affects those on probation for low-level offenses related to drug addiction or poverty.

Mississippi Today reviewed hundreds of documents, spoke with more than 50 current and former restitution-center inmates and interviewed legal experts over the course of 14 months. 

Our investigation with The Marshall Project found:

  • Black people are overrepresented at restitution centers, accounting for 49% of inmates, compared with 38% of the state population, according to our analysis of center data for January 2019. More than 60% of people in prison in Mississippi are black.
  • The work-camp inmates are forced into low-wage, sometimes dangerous jobs, such as slaughtering chickens or gutting catfish at processing plants. Private citizens hire them to work as handymen and landscapers at their homes. 
  • When inmates can’t get jobs, sometimes for medical reasons, they sit in the centers, accruing $330 a month in room and board costs. Some of them say the centers don’t offer programs to deal with addiction or earn high-school diplomas.
  • Just a quarter of all money earned by the inmates went to pay restitution, with the remainder going to the corrections department and the courts, according to state data from July 2014 through June 2018. In some cases, the courts added unrelated debts, such as child support. One man’s charge for meth possession turned into debt totaling $72,500.

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