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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Gulf Coast Trip – January 22-29, 2006

This town has stood up in the face of things
Lots worse than a ninety mile wind
It’s not bad storms I’m afraid of today
But the greed that our leaders walk in.

I’ll walk along the Boardwalk rail
And feel and hear this ninety mile gale
I can hear the ocean mourn and groan
And I wonder about ships lost out in this storm.

So come on wind and blow out your brains
Blow like a Cyclone across the flat plains
This is just an echo of our world wide storm
That’s ripping away our balls and our chains.

–Woody Guthrie, “Ninety Mile Wind” (1944)

This summer, I joined the Editorial Collective of Dollars & Sense. Since September I have been guest editing the March/April issue of the magazine, which we are devoting to economic issues in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

While New Orleans caught one edge of Hurricane Katrina, the storm hit the Gulf Coast of Mississippi head on, causing unfathomable destruction. Nonetheless news coverage of New Orleans has overshadowed, Mississippi. When the mainstream news media does report on Mississippi, we may hear about places like Waveland, Pass Christian, Gulfport, Bay St. Louis, and Biloxi, but we don’t hear about the African Americans who live there. There are few images of Black Mississippians from the Gulf Coast and no discussion of their communities. Except for Waveland, all of these cities have African American populations that are larger than the national average of 12.3%. As of Census 2000, Pass Christian is 28.2% African American. Gulfport is 33.5% African American. In Bay St. Louis and Biloxi, the numbers are 16.6% and 19%, respectively.

As I have pursued writers who are local activists and survivors from the Gulf Coast region, I have been moved by the experiences of African American activists in Gulfport and Biloxi, whom I have had the opportunity to talk to. In Mississippi, as in New Orleans, the slow responses of FEMA and the Red Cross have harmed storm victims of many ethnicities and economic backgrounds. In both places, however, government inaction has especially harmed African Americans. At this writing, as recovery gets underway, white neighborhoods in Biloxi have been substantially cleaned up; on the other side of town, the African American neighborhood still looks like a bombed out war zone.

One of our writers for the March/April issue is an African American attorney, named Gayle. Gayle is in Gulfport, doing legal advocacy for Katrina survivors facing unfair, opportunistic evictions and other housing problems. She is also a hurricane survivor whose brother and two-year-old nephew died in the storm. Speaking with her on the phone has been overwhelming. In a number of our conversations, Gayle has connected me with other survivors who have lost loved ones or property or both and have first-hand experience of the unavailability of government disaster relief. They tell of FEMA trailers sitting unused in storage lots while survivors live in tents in winter weather; the outsourcing of jobs to corporate contractors; and price gouging on building materials.

The first time we spoke, Gayle expressed considerable gratitude that I cared enough to seek her out. There just hadn’t been outside attention to the plights of people in her community, though it had been months since the storm hit. She was eager to write an article for Dollars & Sense, but she also said, urgently, “you have to come here… you just can’t understand unless you see it… please come.” When they heard about my conversations with Gayle and others from the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, the Dollars & Sense Collective agreed that in addition to publishing Gayle, we need to respond to her request.

Dollars & Sense is sending me to Gulfport and Biloxi, and to New Orleans, for eight days, from January 22 – 29. I will document my trip with still images, audio recordings, and video clips. While I am on the Gulf Coast, I will be posting to this blog, which we have just added to our website. To the extent that time and internet connections allow, I will provide regular updates and photos from my trip. In addition to the photos that you will find in posts here, I will post a larger selection of my photos on my flckr account.

After I return from the South, I will write a report of what I saw there for the March/April issue of Dollars & Sense, and possibly for other publications. I will also get the word out about survivors’ experiences in the Gulf by presenting my audio, photographs and video through the Dollars & Sense website and live presentations. As with the March/April issue as a whole, we hope the information I gather on this trip will be useful for activists. The communities I visit will be allowed full access to the audio recordings, photos, and video that I make of them. I will also make a list of the local organizations we have been working with, and of others I may learn about on my trip, that directly address the needs of Katrina survivors; Dollars & Sense will publish the list in the March/April issue and on our website, and I will distribute it at presentations about my trip.

Dollars & Sense is a small non-profit organization on a shoe string budget. This may be the first time that Dollars & Sense has sent someone to do investigative work. If you would like to make a tax deductible donation to help us pay for the trip, you can make donations in $25 increments through our website, or send a check for any amount, with “Katrina Project” in the memo line, to Dollars & Sense, 29 Winter Street, Boston, MA 02108.

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