Ferguson Sued for Running Debtors’ Prison

Federal lawsuit alleges that jailing poor for inability to pay fines amounts to debtors’ prison.


It is important to remember that long before the shooting of Michael Brown, various reporters had noticed the re-emergence of what is basically debtors’ prison. I posted about the “re-invention” of debtors’ prisons back in December 2013.  There was nothing noticeably “racial” about the story initially because the real issue was not one’s race but one’s income level.

When the unrest started in Ferguson, some people noticed that the same debtor prison issues were behind some of the resentment. In fact, Ferguson promised to increase the pressure of traffic fines in order to make up for revenue shortfalls.

Now the problem is going to appear before Federal Court. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports,

Federal class-action lawsuits filed Sunday against the cities of Jennings and Ferguson allege that jails there operate as modern-day debtors’ prisons.

The suits were filed in U.S. District Court in St. Louis on behalf of 15 plaintiffs — referred to as “impoverished people” — who were jailed because they could not pay fines for traffic violations and other minor offenses.


According to the suit, plaintiffs “are kept in overcrowded cells; they are denied toothbrushes, toothpaste, and soap; they are subjected to the stench of excrement and refuse in their congested cells; they are surrounded by walls smeared with mucus, blood and feces; they are kept in the same clothes for days and weeks without access to laundry or clean undergarments…”

Conditions in the Jennings jail are so deplorable, the suit contends, that when inmates are brought to court, “courtroom staff often walks down the hallway spraying Febreze (air freshener) because the stench emanating from the inmates is unbearable.”

The suits claim that guards at both jails “routinely laugh at the inmates and humiliate them with discriminatory and degrading epithets about their poverty and their physical appearance.”

The suits allege that money motivated the municipal court systems.

“The … modern debtors’ prison scheme has been increasingly profitable to the (cities), earning (them) millions of dollars over the past several years,” the suits state.

Of course, it is probably very difficult to easily tell the difference between people who can’t afford to pay and who don’t want to pay. So it will be a difficult problem to solve. But it needs to be addressed and I doubt anyone would want to do so unless a lawsuit gave them motivation.