Ferguson Jails Sued For Being "Modern Debtors' Prison," Allegedly Trapping Low-Income Americans

The Ferguson Police Department is currently under a federal investigation for possible civil rights violations, but the St. Louis suburb may be facing more scrutiny for its questionable justice department. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Ferguson jails were slapped with a class-action lawsuit on Sunday. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, alleges that the town's jails imprisoned people who cannot afford to pay their fines in poor and inhumane conditions. Jails in nearby Jennings, Missouri, were also named in the lawsuit.

The case includes 15 impoverished plaintiffs who were unable to pay off their debts for traffic violations or other minor offenses. In turn, the plaintiffs were jailed for an indefinite amount of time and were not provided with lawyers, the court filing alleges. Lawyers call it a "modern debtors' prison" that traps low-income people in "a cycle of increased fees, debts, extortion, and cruel jailings."

"[T]hey were threatened, abused, and left to languish in confinement at the mercy of local officials until their frightened family members could produce enough cash to buy their freedom," the court filing states. In some cases, the jails waited weeks to release the plaintiffs.

The lawsuit also describes the "grotesque treatment" of the prisoners, who were allegedly subjected to overcrowded cells and unclean conditions:

[The prisoners] are denied toothbrushes, toothpaste, and soap; they are subjected to the constant stench of excrement and refuse in their congested cells; they are surrounded by walls smeared with mucus and blood; they are kept in the same clothes for days and weeks without access to laundry or clean underwear; they step on top of other inmates, whose bodies cover nearly the entire uncleaned cell floor, in order to access a single shared toilet that the City does not clean...they endure days and weeks without being allowed to use the moldy shower; their filthy bodies huddle in cold temperatures with a single thin blanket even as they beg guards for warm blankets.

Lawyers also claim that their clients were denied medication and medical treatment, as well as given unhealthy food. The prisoners also had no access to natural light, and regularly suffered from dehydration, the court filing alleges.

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Since the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, an African-American high school graduate, at the hands of a white Ferguson police officer last August, the suburb of 20,000 people north of St. Louis has become a hotbed of civil and racial unrest. Brown's death and the ensuing protests brought Ferguson to the national stage, turning a new light onto the crime and justice inequality in predominantly African-American towns and cities.

According to the lawsuit, Ferguson issues more arrest warrants per capita than any other city in Missouri with over 10,000 residents. Lawyers estimate that the municipality has made millions off its "modern debtors' prison scheme" over the last several years. "If the rest of the Saint Louis metropolitan area generated revenue from its courts at the rate done by relatively low-income Ferguson, it would have made nearly $1.3 billion in the past five years," the court filing states.

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Most of the prisoners caught in this scheme end up taking money that would have gone toward rent or utility bills, or are forced to use their disability checks to pay the court fees, fines and surcharges. Lawyers contend the city of Ferguson abuses its policy of imprisoning low-income people who cannot pay their debts, instead of providing information about their rights, including their right to counsel. The lawsuit also alleges that Ferguson often issues and enforces "invalid arrest warrants" and routinely threatens low-income people with imprisonment.

Thomas Harvey, an attorney and executive director of ArchCity Defenders, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the 15 plaintiffs, told the Post-Dispatch that they're seeking an injunction against Ferguson and Jennings courts for "consistently violating peoples’ rights."

Harvey called the alleged debtors' scheme "immoral" and "unethical," adding: "These are poor people struggling to make it week-to-week. These courts have prevented them from living a normal life."

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