October 9, 2015

Federal Civil Rights Lawsuit Challenges City of Jackson’s “Debtors’ Prison”

The City of Jackson’s “pay or stay” jailing system has resulted in the unconstitutional imprisonment of hundreds of poor people unable to pay traffic fines and other court debts from misdemeanor cases, according to a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center.

The court practices in Jackson have failed to conduct any meaningful inquiry into the ability of citizens to pay court debts, according to the lawsuit filed by the MacArthur Justice Center and Equal Justice Under Law, a public interest law firm in Washington, D.C.

The lawsuit also challenges the City’s forced labor program, where jailed impoverished people are coerced into working for the City at a “Penal Farm” in violation of the 13th Amendment. Jackson’s prosecutors, municipal court judges, and City employees call this their “pay or stay” system in which people either pay the City or languish in jail or at the Penal Farm. People incarcerated under the “pay or stay” system either “sit out” their debts to the City at the rate of $25 per day or “work off” their debts at the rate of $58 per day.

The lawsuit asks the court to declare the “pay or stay” system unconstitutional and order the City of Jackson to discontinue it immediately. In addition, the suit requests approval of a class action for the purpose of recovering damages from the City of Jackson for each of the thousands of days that poor Jacksonians have been wrongfully incarcerated for failure to pay fines.

“The U.S. Supreme Court and the Supreme Court of Mississippi have made clear that it is unlawful to incarcerate someone due solely to their inability to pay a fine or court costs,” said Cliff Johnson, Director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law.

“As Mississippians, we understand the devastating reality of poverty,” Johnson said. “We should not tolerate a system in which those with money pay their court debts and return to their comfortable homes while those who are poor and unable to pay are thrown into what essentially are debtors’ prisons. It is our sincere hope that the City of Jackson will cease this practice immediately and thereby set an example for the many other Mississippi cities engaged in the same or similar conduct.”

Alec Karakatsanis, co-founder of Equal Justice Under Law, explained that his organization has filed similar lawsuits against several other cities, including Montgomery, Ala., and New Orleans, La. “The ‘pay or stay’ system in Jackson, Mississippi, is as egregious as any system we have seen,” Karakatsanis said. “Rather than taking seriously its obligation to determine the ability of its citizens to pay unpaid court debts and to use human caging only as a last resort, the City of Jackson locks up its poorest citizens for weeks and months at a time in grotesque conditions.”

The Complaint describes the cases of several plaintiffs who were jailed by the City of Jackson for their alleged failure to pay court debts for minor offenses, including Jerome Bell, 58, and James Sheppard, 61. Both were incarcerated for their alleged failure to pay old fines despite the fact that each man’s only source of income is a small, monthly Social Security disability check. Because their disabilities made it impossible for Bell and Sheppard to work off their debts at the Hinds County Penal Farm, each spent nearly a month at the Hinds County Jail sleeping on the concrete floor of a holding cell without a mattress.