Prison means business … for real

A report came out yesterday suggesting that probation in the United States is big, predatory business. The report opens: “The United States Supreme Court has ruled that a person sentenced to probation cannot then be incarcerated simply for failing to pay a fine that they genuinely cannot afford. Yet many misdemeanor courts routinely jail probationers who say they cannot afford to pay what they owe—and they do so in reliance on the assurances of for-profit companies with a financial stake in every single one of those cases.”

Women figure prominently among the lists of the abused and caged. Here’s a typical story. Judge James Straight, a Justice Court judge in Bolivar County, Mississippi, remembers a woman who called his court, weeping. She claimed probation officers, who worked for Judicial Correction Services or JCS, had threatened to have her jailed for a bill of $500. Working a low-paying job, she had struggled to keep up with her payments. When she offered to pay $200, the probation officer said she had to pay it all. So the woman, frantic, called the Judge. His clerk looked into the matter and found that originally the woman had been fined $377, for driving without a valid license. More to the point, she had paid off the entire amount, but still owed JCS about $500 in fees.

Four years ago, a major report came out detailing the rise of the modern debtors’ prison. Across the country, people would end up in prison because they couldn’t pay minor fines or fees, `legal financial obligations’, or LFOs … in the business. Some jails charge prisoners $12 entry fee, $60 a day for room and board, and then reimbursement for medical and other services. You have to pay to play. The Saginaw County Jail, in Michigan, charged people $12 to get out of jail. It was called an “administrative fee.” Women in Michigan have been charged as much as $10,000 in “tether fees”, the price of parole supervision. At a little under $100 a week, and that was in 2010, it was a bargain. Of course, nonpayment of these fees went straight to credit bureaus, and so the vicious circle, or noose, wound ever tighter around each woman.

Eight years ago, in 2006, there was the case of Ora Lee Hurley, who owed $705 in fines, a fine she had incurred in 1990. Hurley was sentenced to 120 days in jail, and then to more jail. The Judge ruled that Hurley had to stay in confinement until she paid her fine. So, Ora Lee Hurley stayed in custody at the Gateway Diversion Center, which is neither a gateway nor a diversion and not much of a center. Five days a week, Hurley left the center and went to work. She earned about $700 a month, of which she paid $600 a month, to the State of Georgia, for room and board, and $52 a month for public transportation. As a result, Ora Lee Hurley stayed a prisoner for at least eight months beyond her sentence. During that time, she earned over $7000, almost all of which went to pay for `room and board.’ If it hadn’t been for the Southern Center for Human Rights, who petitioned for her release, Ora Lee Hurley would probably still be confined today.

Prison means business, yesterday, four years ago, eight years ago. While reports are useful, it’s time. Across the United States, women face new structures of debt designed to send them into cages that then turn them into walking ATMs. End that debt, open those cages.

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa.