Kellia’s World – Recommended Reading

Challenging the assumptions we live by — Because I want to.

Poor debtors go to jail and are billed for the privilege

Posted by kelliasworld on April 30, 2009

By Jerry Mazza
Online Journal Associate Editor

Apr 27, 2009, 00:20

A doctor in the Midwest wrote to me again this past Friday about how the economic mess is destroying people.

He wrote, “One of my patients is a . . . 40ish CPA and she was in for an eye problem yesterday . . . She was distraught over the state of the economy and its effect on her clients. She has had many this year who have lost their homes to foreclosure. To her — and her clients’ — dismay, the bank or lending institution is issuing 1099 forms for re-po’d property to the victims. Apparently, since the hapless former homeowners are effectively ‘forgiven’ the remaining amounts on their loans, that is imputed as earned income and they are turned into the IRS for large tax liabilities!!! How’s that for justice? She said that she had actually had people speak seriously about killing themselves!”

“What a screwed up country . . . Yesterday, I finally bit the bullet and cashed in part of my IRA (already down near 50%) to pay off office credit cards (we have depended on these credit lines for office expenses for some time) because they all raised their rates to 30%!!! Of course, O[bama] has nothing to say about usury . . .

“On top of this, I ran across this today . . .” What followed was an article by Eric Ruder, Guilty of Being Poor from I will highlight some of its points but this is a must-read. It picks up the theme that the good doctor and his patient experienced firsthand, that of debtor’s prison, or jail time for nonpayment of debt.

As Ruder points out, “19th century jailers, even pre-Civil war, largely abandoned this odious practice of putting people in jail for falling into debt . . . In fact, in the 1970s and 80s, the US Supreme Court affirmed that incarcerating people who can’t pay fines because of poverty violates the US Constitution.” As he states, “some states and county jails never got the memo. Welcome to the debtor’s prisons of the 21st century.” He then detailed a number of real-life, often tragic cases.

The first was a poor Michigan resident who was ordered to reimburse a juvenile detention center $104 a month for holding her 16-year old son. This was the subject of a New York Times editorial, as well. I wonder if Ponzi swindler Bernie Madoff will be billed for his coming stay in prison, or Tyco International’s CEO Dennis Koslowski or Enron’s former CEO Jeff Skilling pay for their stays in prison.

In regard to the hapless Michigan resident, Edwina Nowlin, the Times wrote, “When she explained to the court that she could not afford to pay, Ms. Nowlin was sent to prison. The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, which helped get her out last week after she spent 28 days behind bars, says it is seeing more people being sent because they cannot make various court-ordered payments. That is both barbaric and unconstitutional.”

Ruder wrote Nowlin’s case was more serious than the Times imagined. “Not only was Nowlin under orders to pay a fine stemming from someone else’s actions, but she had been laid off from work and lost her home at the time she was ordered to ‘reimburse’ the county for her son’s detention.” And even though she couldn’t pay, the court held her in contempt and laid a 30-day sentence on her.

Three days after she was jailed, she was let out for a day to work. She picked up a paycheck of $178.53, which she assumed could be put towards paying off the $104 to gain release from jail. But no, when she returned to the jail, “the sheriff told her to sign her paycheck over to the country—to pay $120 for her own room and board plus $22 for a drug test and booking fee.”

Nowlin asked for but was denied a court-appointed lawyer for her defense. “So, because she was too poor to pay for a lawyer and denied her constitutional right to a court-provided lawyer, she couldn’t fight the contempt charge that resulted from her poverty.” This as the fines and fees she was supposed to pay now multiplied like a credit card balance.

The director of the Michigan ACLU said, “Jailing her because of her poverty is not only unconstitutional. It’s unconscionable and a shameful waste of resources. It is not a crime to be poor in this country, and the government must stop resurrecting debtor’s prisons from the dustbin of history.”

Nor is Michigan the only state where you can be jailed for involuntary poverty. This nefarious process is going on every day in courtrooms around the USA. Read Ruder’s story for these hair-raising examples.

They take place in a number of southern states, including Georgia and Louisiana, and bear the unmistakable stamp of racism, as well as state-sponsored usury, a kind of terrorism all its own. It includes debtors being turned over to for-profit collection companies until they pay off their fines. So, while on prison probation, they have to come up with substantial monthly “supervision fees” that can double or triple the amount that a well-situated person would have to pay for the same offense.

Thus, this poverty profiling of debtors only serves to dig its victims deeper into debt with the possibility of longer and longer jail time, for which, in turn, there will be new charges.

That’s almost as vicious as Madoff’s Ponzi scheme and as criminal, given the defendant’s inability to obtain legal counsel.

Eric Ruder’s writes, “We need to build a movement, like the working-class struggles of the 1930s, that can demand an end to the inhuman practice of incarcerating people for no other crime than finding themselves at the bottom of the social ladder.”

Jerry Mazza is a freelance writer living in New York City. Reach him at His new book, “State Of Shock: Poems from 9/11 on” is available at, Amazon or

The judges who did these things are a disgrace to the constitution and the court system. They should be immediately impeached, removed from office, and disbarred.

As for imputed income, I say we should pay taxes on imputed income when we can buy groceries with it. K.R.


One Response to “Poor debtors go to jail and are billed for the privilege”

  1. aj said


    I was just talking about this today (5-20) with someone – how a traffic ticket or jay walking can turn into hundreds of dollars of debt paid to the state for your imprisonment. And they add interest too!

    I don’t think most people are aware of how the state consistantly penalizes the poor.

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