Forced laborers sue Mississippi debtors' prison

If you're poor in Jackson, MS and you get a fine that you can't pay, the City of Jackson will sentence you to a "pay or stay" forced labor farm where you will work off your debts at $58/day literally shoveling shit; the alternative is to sit in an overcrowded, jail notorious for its violent guards and filthy conditions and pay down your fines at $25/day.

Jerome Bell, 58 years old and disabled following a series of strokes, owed more than $4,000 in fines and other fees related to traffic violations when he was arrested in July. In court, Judge Gerald Mumford ordered Bell to pay the fines or sit in jail until the debt was paid off. Bell, who lives off a monthly Social Security disability check and food stamps, could not afford to pay and was consequently jailed. The lawsuit claims Bell's public defender made no effort to assess the accuracy of the court's charges, nor did he ask the court to consider Bell's financial difficulties.

According to court documents, Bell was housed at the Raymond Jail for more than 35 days. For 20 days he "slept on the concrete floor of a holding cell in the booking unit of the jail with no mattress or cushion of any sort." According to his attorney, Jacob Howard, who works with the University of Mississippi's MacArthur Justice Center, Bell suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure, and weakness on the left side of his body as a result of multiple strokes.

Despite his physical impediments, Howard told me, Bell would have preferred to be jailed on the penal farm because the living conditions there are said to be better than those at the overcrowded Raymond Jail. Unfortunately for Bell, the county kept him in the jail because his daily insulin shot was unavailable at the penal farm, which sits less than 1 mile from the jail. "I have no idea why they're incapable of providing daily insulin," Howard said.

Lawsuit Challenges a Mississippi Debtors Prison [Juan Thompson/The Intercept]