Abolish Debtors’ Prisons That Penalize the Poor


Target: Phil Bryant, Governor of Mississippi

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Goal: Don’t support restitution centers that disproportionately target low-income and minority citizens.

The state of Mississippi is sentencing some of its most debt-ridden, poverty-stricken citizens to modern-day indentured servitude. The state’s restitution centers—what many call debtors’ prisons instead—seemingly force individuals to work for indefinite periods of time in order to pay off fines and other debts. Even when they are not working, these individuals, who have not been found guilty of a violent crime, must nevertheless live in prison-like conditions.

While the Mississippi Department of Corrections claims it does not force anyone to work off debts and that it merely helps individuals ordered to pay off debts find work, a months-long investigation indicates otherwise. People sentenced to these restitutions centers by a judge must inhabit them or face actual prison time. According to many enduring this punishment, prison might be preferable. They cannot seek their own work but must report to jobs chosen for them, escorted in vans with barred windows. While they work, they do not enjoy the breaks typical for other employees. And every day, they must return to live in the restitution center, where they are strip-searched almost immediately upon entry and locked inside for most of the day.

Worse yet for these individuals, unlike traditional prisoners no concrete end-date for their incarceration exists. They must stay at the facility until they have paid off their debts, and during this time they receive no indication of how much they have paid thus far or how much is even going to the debt itself. Court costs and the cost of staying at the restitution center all come out of the debtor’s paycheck, often leaving little left over for the actual debt. Individuals may endure this fate for up to five years, lengthier than many prison sentences.

Low-income citizens who do not have the financial means to pay off hefty fines or debts are most vulnerable to these predatory, highly questionable “public services.” Sign the petition below to demand reform of this abusive, damaging system.

PETITION LETTER:

Dear Governor Bryant,

Mississippi is the only state that locks people up as they pay court-sanctioned debts. Some might call this arrangement a debtors’ prison or indentured servitude. Others might rightfully designate it a blatant violation of these citizens’ rights.

Most states quickly abandoned their restitution center experiments decades ago for a reason, deeming them costly and mostly ineffectual. More so, they harken back to uncomfortable periods of American history best left in the past. Mississippi, however, treats these non-violent offenders, many who are given suspended sentences, like the most hardened criminals, with strip searches, mandatory lockups, and forced servitude. According to some of the “guests,” these centers sometimes took all but a meager few dollars of their paychecks. As the weeks, months, and sometimes years went by, these individuals came to compare their experiences to torture.

Statistics show that a surplus of the residents in these facilities are working off debts driven by drug addiction and poverty. A disproportionate number are minorities. As one critic puts it, the poorest state in the country is subjecting some of its poorest residents to slave-like conditions. You must, at the very least, recognize the optics of this archaic system.

Make the right call and abolish restitution centers before they create another dark legacy from which this state cannot escape.

Sincerely,

[Your Name Here]

Photo Credit: Marshall Project

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