Qumotria Kennedy said NO to debtors’ prison … and won!

Qumotria Kennedy

Despite having been outlawed and declared unconstitutional, debtors’ prisons and even more debtors’ jails exist all over the United States. In Biloxi, Mississippi, Qumotria Kennedy said NO to all of that, and, a couple weeks ago, she, and we, won! On the same day Qumotria Kennedy won, the U.S. Department of Justice warned state judges that courthouses are not supposed to be ATMs, but, of course, the national shakedown of the poor persists.

In July 2015, Qumotria Kennedy, 36 years old, Black, a single mother, was riding with a friend, going to pick up their kids. The car was stopped by the police. Even though Qumotria Kennedy was the passenger, the police ran her identity `through the system’ and found an outstanding warrant for having “failed to pay” court fines, which stemmed from traffic violations in 2013. The thing is, Qumotria Kennedy didn’t fail to pay. She couldn’t pay. She didn’t have the money. She explained that to the probation officers, who are employees of Judicial Corrections Services Inc, a private processing company. They refused to hear her explanations.

Qumotria Kennedy works off and on as a cleaner. She earns under $9000 a year. She raises two children, on her own. By any standards, and by formal government standards, Qumotria Kennedy is indigent. She said as much. She asked for help. She was sent to jail for five days. That’s what counts as help these days.

In October, Qumotria Kennedy, Richard Tillery and Joseph Anderson sued The City of Biloxi; John Miller, Chief of Police of the City of Biloxi; Judge James Steele; and the Judicial Corrections Services, Incorporated. Qumotria Kennedy and her co-complainants were represented by the ACLU. The complaint begins: “Defendant City of Biloxi … operates a modern-day debtors’ prison. The City routinely arrests and jails impoverished people in a scheme to generate municipal revenue through the collection of unpaid fines, fees, and court costs imposed in traffic and other misdemeanors cases. As a result, each year, hundreds of poor residents of the City and surrounding areas, including individuals with disabilities and homeless people, are deprived of their liberty in the Harrison County Adult Detention Center for days to weeks at a time for no reason other than their poverty and in violation of their most basic constitutional rights.”

As Qumotria Kennedy explains, “I decided to bring a lawsuit against Biloxi because I don’t like what the city is doing to people. All it cares about is money. Biloxi locked me up for being poor. But it costs them money to keep me in jail. So this system doesn’t even make any sense. I hope that everybody knows that the system is trampling on poor people, and it’s not fair.”

Last month, Biloxi settled with Qumotria Kennedy and her co-complainants. The city agreed to pay each $25,000. Additionally Biloxi said it would stop jailing people for nonpayment of fines and that it would no longer use probation companies to collect fines. Additionally, it would hire a full-time public defender to represent the indigent charged with nonpayment and would not charge additional fees to people who entered into repayment plans or performed community service in lieu of payment. Furthermore, people will not be given a hearing to see if they’re able to pay imposed fines. For those who can’t pay, alternatives will be found.

Qumotria Kennedy was dumped into jail because she’s a low-income Black woman. Qumotria Kennedy is the embodiment of intersectional violence. The violence against her and the extraction of value from her body intensified with each convergence of components of her identity. This revolving cash register of injustice is happening in jails across the country. Thanks to Qumotria Kennedy, who refused to be the sum total of her oppressions, who said NO to the City and the Police and the Judge and the Corporation and the injustice and indignity of debtors’ prison, it may be ending in Biloxi, Mississippi.


(Photo Credit: American Civil Liberties Union)

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.


(Image Credit: Southern Center for Human Rights)