A lot has been written about mass incarceration and the role drug laws have played in boosting the nation’s prison and jail population. While it is intuitive to expect prisoners to be accused or convicted of criminal offenses, the reality is that tens of thousands of people – nearly all men and, as usual, disproportionately men of color, and nearly always poor – are languishing behind bars not because they committed a crime but because they are too poor to pay court-ordered child support. While much attention has been focused recently on “debtors’ prisons,” where people are incarcerated due to their inability to pay fines, fees and court costs, prisoners serving time for non-payment of child support are largely ignored.
This month’s cover story is the first article to examine this issue nationally. Jailing people who owe child support first came to my attention in 2010 when PLN was suing the Berkeley County jail in South Carolina, which banned all books and magazines except the Bible. [See: PLN, Feb. 2012, p.14; Nov. 2010, p.38]. While reviewing the jail roster I noticed that over half the population of around 500 prisoners had not been accused or convicted of a crime, but were imprisoned for nonpayment of child support. That made me wonder how many of the nation’s 2.3 million prisoners are locked up because they are too poor to pay child support. It turns out that like many important things in America, such as how many people are killed by the police annually and how much it costs to operate sex offender databases and registries, nobody really knows. Many thanks go to Melanie Abbott, a student volunteer at PLN who spent a lot of time tracking down the numbers and compiling what little data exists on people incarcerated for failure to pay court-ordered child support.
Historically, governments have waited until people commit crimes before imprisoning them, and the evolution of the police state may be to incarcerate people for crimes they might commit in the future – for example, the civil commitment of sex offenders. The next step of the police state is imprisoning tens of thousands of people for what is not even a crime, such as failing to pay child support. Incarcerating people who have broken no law but cannot afford to pay court-ordered child support is a brilliant way to lock up poor citizens who are not criminals and probably never will be. Of course this is being done under the guise of “helping the children,” as nothing helps children like imprisoning their parents because they are poor.
And sometimes it’s a death sentence. Walter Scott, a 50-year-old African American man, was shot in the back and murdered by police officer Michael Slager in South Carolina in April 2015. Scott, who was stopped for a broken brake light, ran from the traffic stop because he had a bench warrant for failure to pay child support. Presumably his four children will reap the benefits of any lawsuit filed over their father’s death at the hands of officer Slager, who is now facing murder charges. Or consider the case of R&B singer Sean Levert, who was sentenced to 22 months for failing to pay around $90,000 in child support. Once booked into a jail in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, he was not provided with his prescribed anti-anxiety medication Xanax and died as a result. In 2010 the jail settled a wrongful death suit filed by his ex-wife for $4 million. [See: PLN, Dec. 2010, p.20]. How many other prisoners have died for the capital offense of being too poor to pay child support? No one knows because no one is counting.
We hope this month’s cover story will spur more interest in this topic, which is grossly underreported and further illustrates the level and degree that poverty has been criminalized and punished in the U.S.
In other news, The Habeas Citebook, Second Edition has been received from the printer and is being shipped. Anyone desiring to order this latest updated book from PLN Publishing can do so now – see ordering details on pages 69-70.
Starting this month, we are asking for donations for our annual fundraiser. You will soon be receiving the 2015 annual report for the Human Rights Defense Center, PLN’s parent non-profit organization, which describes what we accomplished during the past year as well as our goals for the future. Right now one of our top goals is to hire another attorney to expand our litigation capacity, so we can better challenge restrictive communication policies in prisons and jails – including fee-based video visitation and unconstitutional censorship. We also need your help to continue our Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, which is ongoing. If you can make a donation to support HRDC, please do so; we can’t accomplish all the work we do without your support. If you cannot donate, please encourage others to make a contribution.
Enjoy this issue of PLN.
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