Before Katrina: Modern Day Debtors' Prison In Gulfport, MS

Gulfport, MS was in the news over the weekend with a jaw-dropping story. Saturday’s US News & World Report told of a class action suit against the city, concerning what amounted to a debtors’ prison before Hurricane Katrina:

Last July, a homeless man named Hubert Lindsey was stopped by police officers in Gulfport, Miss., for riding his bicycle without a light. The police soon discovered that Lindsey was a wanted man. Gulfport records showed he owed $4,780 in old fines. So, off to jail he went.

Legal activists now suing the city in federal court say it was pretty obvious that Lindsey couldn’t pay the fines. According to their complaint, he lived in a tent, was unemployed, and appeared permanently disabled by an unseeing eye and a mangled arm. But without a lawyer to plead his case, the question of whether Lindsey was a scofflaw or just plain poor never came up. Nor did the question of whether the fines were really owed, or if it was constitutional to jail him for debts he couldn’t pay. Nobody, the activists say, even bothered to mention alternatives like community service. The judge ordered Lindsey to “sit out” the fine in jail. That took nearly two months.

[U]p until Hurricane Katrina hit, [Gulfport police were] beating the pavement looking for those who owed fines for things like public profanity–at $222 a pop. The result of Gulfport’s fine-reclamation project was that while it collected modest sums of money, it also packed the county jail with hundreds of people who couldn’t pay. The Southern Center for Human Rights filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Gulfport last July. Attorney Sarah Geraghty says that before bringing the case against the city, she witnessed hundreds of court adjudications involving Gulfport’s poor in which no defense attorney was present or even offered. Many defendants, Geraghty said, were obviously indigent, mentally ill, or physically disabled, like Hubert Lindsey; some had been jailed for fines they had already paid. One mentally ill woman attempted suicide by jumping from an elevated cell in the county jail after she was picked up for having failed to pay several city fines; the lawsuit alleges that police then grabbed her again on the same charge a few months later, causing her to miss the surgery scheduled to fix the broken bones in her feet.

As we attempt to understand the observable disparities in who gets relief and what gets rebuilt, it is important to keep in mind the city’s demonstrated attitude towards its poor. It is also important to keep in mind what strips of pavement the city was beating and whom it tended to be looking for. The Amended Complaint from the lawsuit, which attorney Sarah Geraghty has sent me, describes

a special force of police officers charged with patrolling the streets of Gulfport to arrest citizens who have failed to pay fines assessed by the Gulfport Municipal Court. These officers conduct periodic sweeps, during which they search the streets for people who look as though they might the City old fines. During these sweeps, the officers go into predominantly African-American neighborhoods and stop people in the streets without any independent reason or suspicion, but for the sole purpose of checking to see if they owe the City old fines. Those who owe fines are taken to jail.

The state of Mississippi has the highest percentage of Black Americans in the country [PDF]. Second is Louisiana. Mississippi and Louisiana are pretty much tied for the highest poverty rates in the US, both hovering just below 20% statewide. We cannot discuss the effects of Katrina and the issues around reconstruction without serious, ongoing considerations of race and poverty.

Further Reading
• Sun Herald, “A lawsuit alleges that practices in Gulfport’s Municipal Court are creating a DEBTORS PRISON
Southern Center for Human Rights Indigent Defense Cases In The News

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One thought on “Before Katrina: Modern Day Debtors' Prison In Gulfport, MS”

  1. Before leaving the Mississippi Delta this summer, only two weeks before Katrina, I’d heard whispers that debtors’ prisons were still a fact of life in Mississippi. At the turn of the century, before Parchman Penetentiary was built, convicts were leased out and literally worked to death in the cotton fields and elsewhere. Somehow, I’d set this new information aside since it was so incredible. But now I’m a believer that <>the past is still the present<> in the Magnolia state. Great first story! Susan Klopfer

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