A Missouri debtors’ prison inmate’s story

This video from the USA is called “Nicole” Stories of Hope and Courage: Homelessness in the ShowMe State.

From daily The Guardian in Britain, about the USA:

Debtors prisons are illegal in America. Missouri locked me up in one anyway

I didn’t have the money to fix my car, let alone pay fines from unpaid traffic tickets. The state held me in prison until it got the money out of my mother

Nicole Bolden in Missouri

Thursday 12 February 2015 16.15 GMT

On 17 March, 2014, I was driving with two of my children in Florissant – which is right next to Ferguson, Missouri – when I got into an accident. The accident wasn’t my fault, but the officer who arrived on the scene gave me a ticket for not registering my car: it runs fine but couldn’t pass the mandatory state inspection necessary for registration, and I didn’t have the money to fix it.

Then he arrested me.

The officer explained that I had outstanding warrants for my arrest in the municipalities of Hazelwood, Dellwood, and Foristell. My supposed crimes? I owed money for fines stemming from unpaid traffic tickets.

They took me out of my car and told me to call someone who could come get my babies. I was scared. I couldn’t just leave my kids but there was no talking him down. Luckily, I was a street away from my mother’s house, so she could get my kids. But who’s to say what others would have done in my situation? I was lucky to have my momma and my sister.

When we got to the jail, the officer said I owed Florissant money too. I needed to go to the hospital to be checked out after the accident – but the officer refused. He said I would have to stay in jail until I paid what I owed. It was like they were holding me for ransom. My mom was able to pay Florissant the money, but I still wasn’t free.

I was in jail with 6 women – all black – for 22 hours until a police officer from Hazelwood came to take me to their jail. He said I owed them $150 in unpaid debt. I had $120 on my child support card, which I used to pay them, and even though that wasn’t the full amount, they “let me go”. But I wasn’t freed, because I still owed money to both Dellwood and Foristell.

Authorities in Hazelwood transferred me to the Dellwood police, who kept me at St Louis County’s jail for 20 hours because they don’t have their own one. My cousin eventually gave them $150. I still wasn’t free to go home though, because I owed $1,758 to Foristell. I didn’t have that much cash. No one I know does.

Foristell police finally came to St Louis on Sunday morning at 4:00am to pick me up. Foristell doesn’t have a jail, so they locked me up in St Charles. I asked when my court date was but no one knew.

When I got there a case manager asked me how I was doing. I was hungry, tired, and couldn’t take it any more. I hadn’t slept in 4 days. When I told them that, they put me in isolation and said I was a threat to myself. I was exhausted, but I would have never taken my own life. All I wanted was sleep.

I was locked in a cage with a heroin addict who was throwing up a lot and too sick to clean after herself, but the guards said she had to anyway. I thought they were joking. I asked for gloves so I could do it myself, but I had to wait eight hours before I got any.

There were three showers in the St Charles facility, but when you turned the water on, gnats flew up. We fought over which shower to use because the middle stall had fewer bugs in it. I didn’t even really want to shower.

They held me for two weeks in that jail. For $1,758 that I didn’t have, all to pay debt from traffic tickets.

When I finally went to court, I told the judge I didn’t have any money to pay the last fine, but the judge wouldn’t listen to me. He said that I would have to stay in jail for two more weeks. “We’ll see how much money you can come up with”, he said.

My lawyer got there and talked to the judge. Even though my lawyer got the fine reduced to $700, I didn’t have that money. In the end, my momma borrowed against her life insurance and my sister spent her whole paycheck to get me out. It put my momma and sister in a bind.

While I was incarcerated I missed a job interview. My children are still dealing with the trauma of seeing me arrested. They cry when I drop them off at a sitter’s house because they are afraid I won’t come back. I almost lost my apartment because my rent was due and I couldn’t make the payment in jail.

What you see in St Louis is the same all across America: debtors’ prisons. People are so desensitized to what it means to lock a human being like me in a cage that they now think it’s OK to do it over money. They don’t care that locking people up doesn’t help them earn any money. It just costs people like my momma money they don’t have. When the people being jailed are poor or from communities of color, the court is even less likely to give it a second thought.

I didn’t know it at the time I was arrested, but locking up people like me who can’t pay fines is against the law. The Supreme Court ruled a long time ago that only people who have the money to pay their debts but refuse to do so can be incarcerated for non-payment.

Still, all across America, people are being imprisoned because of poverty. In many of the 90 municipalities in St Louis County – like Florissant, Hazelwood, Dellwood and Foristell – they are violating the Constitution and jailing people simply because they are poor.

My lawyers – ArchCity Defenders – have joined Equal Justice Under Law and the Saint Louis University School of Law legal clinics – have filed a lawsuit against the municipalities of Ferguson and Jennings for violating the civil rights of people like me.

There are 11 people suing Ferguson on behalf of everyone who was jailed for not paying fines they didn’t have the money to pay. They want justice for what we went through.

These small municipalities are just money-hungry. If you go to court and say you can’t pay, they’ll hold you and lock you up. If I’m sitting in jail, I definitely can’t pay you – but they don’t care. It’s all about the money – but they’re spending money and I’m losing money. Everybody loses. We all lose.

A study released Wednesday by the Vera Institute of Justice, entitled “Incarceration’s Front Door: The Misuse of Jails in America,” argues that American jails have become “massive warehouses” for the poor since the early 1980s. The study exposes the onerous conditions that even a brief stay in jail imposes on the poorest and most vulnerable sections of American society. Jails have been transformed, according to the authors, from temporary detention facilities for those awaiting trial into a “a gateway to deeper and more lasting involvement in the criminal justice system”: here.

The Missouri cities of Ferguson and Jennings operate what are essentially debtors’ prisons, throwing people in jail for extended periods of time for inability to pay fines for minor offenses, according to federal lawsuits filed this month: here.

Woman Who Suffered ‘Inhumane’ Death In Jail Was Only There Because She Was Poor. Jennifer Meyers was one of the many victims of a system that incarcerates people because they can’t pay fees or fines: here.

The United States’ War on Youth: From Schools to Debtors’ Prisons: here.

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