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Alabama town busted for jailing poor citizens in illegal debt prisons

Alabama town busted for jailing poor citizens in illegal debt prisons

While institutionalized debtor’s prisons in the U.S. had been pretty much abolished since just before the Civil War, the practice of imprisoning individuals for failure to pay court ordered civil duty obligations has continued in local, state, and even Federal jurisdictions.  And the most common examples are with those considered to be ‘dead beat Dad’s’ who fail to pay their court mandated child support.

But being thrown in jail simply for being poor, or being unable to pay for a civil penalty such as a parking ticket is rarely done in the U.S. today, except in a small town in Alabama which on March 15 found out the hard way the cost of using petty debts as justification for imprisoning nearly 200 individuals in a debtors prison scheme.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has reached a $680,000 settlement in its lawsuit against the Alabama city of Alexander and its police chief Willie Robinson. The settlement was for depriving 190 of its residents their rights to due process (6th Amendment) and the unlawful seizure of their property (4th Amendment). Sheriff Robinson has even been asked to resign by lawyers representing their client.

Each one of the 190 individuals will receive $500 cash from the city for jailing them for being too poor to pay the fines imposed on them by the town. As reported by, “Hundreds of impoverished residents have faced unconstitutional and unjust treatment in Alexander City simply because they were too poor to pay fines and fees,” said Sam Brooke, in a press release. Brooke is the SPLC’s deputy legal director. He added, “The shuttering of this modern-day debtors’ prison, along with the monetary award, brings justice to many of the people who were unfairly targeted for being poor.”

The way the injustice flourished was as follows. A resident would receive a speeding ticket, for example. If they were unable to pay, they were arrested, taken to jail, and forced to remain there. While in jail, they would earn $20 a day for just being in jail, and $40 a day for doing laundry, cleaning, or washing police cruisers, until the total sum of the fine was paid in full. Each person was not allowed to go before a judge, nor to have a lawyer present to help in aid in their defense. – Free Thought Project

Sadly, the state of America has been broken down into two sets of justice, where the rich can steal and defraud the public for hundreds of billions of dollars and receive no punishment since they can hide behind the facade of their corporations, while the common man who might forget to pay a $15 parking ticket is arrested and sent to jail without their guaranteed protections of constitutional rights.  In fact, even corporations have now gotten into the act of using prisoners as cheap labor through the privatization of incarceration.

Image result for modern day debtors prison

Just as the recently fired U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara justified his inability to prosecute these cases (financial fraud) because the CEO may have done “a really good job of getting a law firm to give them a legal opinion that blesses [their actions]”, there is rarely any such leniency by District Attorney’s or the courts in overlooking someone who can’t afford a million dollar attorney to help them deal with petty civil debts imposed on a minor scale.  And it is this mentality that will continue to allow local and state governments to push the boundaries on using debt obligations as justification for throwing people in prison so they can milk their labor to benefit themselves rather than the public good.

Kenneth Schortgen Jr is a writer for The Daily Economist,, and Viral Liberty, and hosts the popular youtube podcast on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Ken can also be heard Wednesday afternoons giving an weekly economic report on the Angel Clark radio show.



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