To Prison for Poverty
To Prison for Poverty documents the system that enables private probation companies to profit from charging excessive fees to low income people who can't pay small fines like traffic tickets. If they can't pay, they go to jail.
Many people think that debtor’s prisons disappeared from American society just as surely as horse-based transportation. But in fact, people who are too poor to pay fines are still being threatened with incarceration -- and even imprisoned -- today. Add private, for-profit companies to the mix, and you've got a system that abuses those who can least afford it, with disastrous effects on poor people and communities of color .
Our new documentary, To Prison For Poverty, features two parts. Part 1 tells the story of Hali Wood, a seventeen-year-old from Columbiana, Alabama, deeply in debt to a private probation company, JCS. Part 2 tells the story of Kathleen Hucks, a woman suing Sentinel Corrections Services for their abuse of power.
We see a similar dynamic with for-profit probation companies. If someone gets a traffic ticket and can't pay, the judge puts her on "probation," which really means being ordered to walk down the hall and sign up for a payment plan with a company that has a contract to collect unpaid fines and fees for the court. If the person falls behind on her payments and ever-mounting fees, including those charged by the for-profit probation company itself, company officers pressure her for payments, sometimes with threats of jail and arrest warrants from court. The end result is that poor people scramble to make payments they can't afford. And some even lose their liberty and go to jail.
Probation is supposed to help people return to their community when there is no public safety justification for keeping them behind bars. That goal is sabotaged by companies that are simply collections agencies on steroids.
Judges who run these courts can end this abuse tomorrow, by exerting more oversight of these companies, or by simply ending contracts with these companies where they have the power to do so. As we explore in our documentary, traditional public probation does a fine job of enforcing the law without a profit motive.
Update: Upon release, we screened To Prison for Poverty in the very communities where these companies operate. It was reported in October of 2015 that JCS announced it would stop all operations in Alabama. Learn more about JCS and the problems with a debtor's prison in our short To Prison for Poverty.