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2020 The Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, Small Newsroom finalist

Think Debtors Prisons Are a Thing of the Past?

Not in Mississippi

About the Project

“Think Debtors Prisons are a Thing of the Past: Not in Mississippi,” was a year-long investigation by The Marshall Project in partnership with Mississippi Today. The story revealed that the state of Mississippi confines people with felony convictions to prison-like facilities known as “restitution centers” where they have to work low-wage jobs for private employers by day, and are sent to locked facilities at night, in order to pay off fines, court fees and restitution.

Reporters Anna Wolfe and Michelle Liu share the story of Annita Husband, who owed almost $13,000 from a 2009 embezzlement conviction when she was sent to Flowood Restitution Center. Most of her pay from a part-time, minimum-wage job at Church’s Chicken had gone to “room and board” at the restitution center and to pay court fees. Corrections officials allowed Husband to keep only $10 per week from her paycheck.

“If I wasn’t at work, I was at prison,” she told reporters.

The investigation also found:
– Mississippi’s four restitution centers are mostly filled with low-level offenders, many of whom don’t owe restitution at all. The residents are disproportionately black, 49 percent compared to the state’s 38 percent black population, according to an analysis of state data for January 2019.
– Residents spent an average of four months and up to five years at the centers, working for private employers to earn enough to satisfy the courts.
– Inmates work at low-wage, sometimes dangerous jobs, such as slaughtering chickens or gutting catfish at processing plants. The inmates also work at the homes of private citizens doing landscaping or repairs.
– Only one-fourth of all money earned by inmates between 2015 and 2018 went to pay restitution. The rest was mainly used for room, board and court fees. In some cases, judges added unrelated debts, such as unpaid child support.
– Inmates who can’t get jobs end up sitting in the restitution centers, continually growing their debt with $330 a month in room and board costs.

The system penalizes the poorest residents of the poorest state in the country, said Cliff Johnson, a law professor at the University of Mississippi, who runs its justice center and commented in the investigative piece. “Debtors prisons are an effective way of collecting money, as is kidnapping,” he told reporters. “But there are constitutional, public policy and moral barriers to such a regime.”

Along with Mississippi Today, the story appeared in the Jackson Clarion Ledger, USA Today, The Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, and Mississippi Public Broadcasting.

For exposing the existence of modern-day debtors prisons, and for working with local partners to ensure that our story was widely read in Mississippi, we are proud to nominate “Think Debtors Prisons are a Thing of the Past: Not in Mississippi,” for the ONA Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award.