Lawsuit Challenges a Mississippi Debtors Prison

The City of Jackson employs a “pay or stay” system in which impoverished plaintiffs unable to pay court-ordered fines must work off their debts at the county’s penal farm, according to the lawsuit.

Hinds County Detention Facility Photo: Jackson Free Press

LOW-INCOME RESIDENTS of Jackson, Mississippi, are being coerced into working on a penal farm in a “modern-day debtors prison” for being unable to pay municipal fees and fines for misdemeanors, according to a class-action lawsuit filed in a federal court last week.

The suit alleges that the City of Jackson, in Hinds County, employs a “pay or stay” system in which impoverished plaintiffs who are unable to pay court-ordered fines must work off their debts at the county’s penal farm in nearby Raymond at a rate of $58 per day. Those unable or unwilling to work can sit out their debts in jail at a rate of $25 per day.

Seven Hinds County residents are listed as plaintiffs in the complaint, all impoverished black men. Many of them also have physical disabilities.

Jerome Bell, 58 years old and disabled following a series of strokes, owed more than $4,000 in fines and other fees related to traffic violations when he was arrested in July. In court, Judge Gerald Mumford ordered Bell to pay the fines or sit in jail until the debt was paid off. Bell, who lives off a monthly Social Security disability check and food stamps, could not afford to pay and was consequently jailed. The lawsuit claims Bell’s public defender made no effort to assess the accuracy of the court’s charges, nor did he ask the court to consider Bell’s financial difficulties.

According to court documents, Bell was housed at the Raymond Jail for more than 35 days. For 20 days he “slept on the concrete floor of a holding cell in the booking unit of the jail with no mattress or cushion of any sort.” According to his attorney, Jacob Howard, who works with the University of Mississippi’s MacArthur Justice Center, Bell suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure, and weakness on the left side of his body as a result of multiple strokes.

Despite his physical impediments, Howard told me, Bell would have preferred to be jailed on the penal farm because the living conditions there are said to be better than those at the overcrowded Raymond Jail. Unfortunately for Bell, the county kept him in the jail because his daily insulin shot was unavailable at the penal farm, which sits less than 1 mile from the jail. “I have no idea why they’re incapable of providing daily insulin,” Howard said.

Those incarcerated at the farm pay off their debts by cleaning up horse and chicken dung and collecting eggs, among other tasks.

After spending more than a month in jail, Bell was discharged after Howard argued before the court that his client was legally entitled to perform community service. Judge Mumford ordered Bell to perform more than 500 hours of community service to pay off his debt.

Asked to comment on the lawsuit, a spokesperson for the City of Jackson released a prepared statement denying the lawsuit’s allegations and vowing to fight it:

The City of Jackson does not operate a “debtors prison,” and aims to treat all of its citizens fairly under the law. The City of Jackson does not imprison any citizen without statutory authority and the weighing of all factors, unlike surrounding municipalities who make it a practice to imprison individuals who cannot pay immediately. … The City of Jackson will vigorously defend against these unfounded claims.

Jails in Hinds County have faced criticism before.

In May, the Department of Justice completed an investigation finding that the county jail in Raymond and the Jackson City Detention Center were “facilities in crisis.” In a 29-page report, the DOJ charged that Hinds County “violates prisoners’ constitutional rights at both jail facilities” and that officials “fail to protect prisoners from violence by other prisoners and from improper use of force by staff.”

Jail staff members were accused of being poorly trained and quick to use improper and excessive force against the incarcerated population. Conditions in the jails were filthy and “grossly inappropriate.” In one instance, while touring an isolation unit, inspectors and jail officials were surprised to discover a prisoner occupying a cell that was supposed to be out of service. “It turned out that the prisoner had spent the past three weeks in this cell, without properly functioning plumbing and in horrible living conditions. The cell stank, and the floor toilet was clogged with urine-soaked blankets and cloth,” the report said. In another instance, the report highlighted the case of an unnamed inmate “who could neither speak nor hear,” who “had been living in a cramped, dark booking cell with a reeking toilet for nearly three years.”

In response, county authorities told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger that measures were being taken to address the problems, including the addition of cameras and dogs and a new ceiling. “This highlights what we’ve been saying since we were in office since 2012,” Sheriff Tyrone Lewis told the paper. “We appreciate what the DOJ has come in and done.”

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