Thieves Forced to Work Until Debt is Paid

USA Today recently published a piece on what some are calling Mississippi’s debtor prison program, one which is beginning to get a lot of attention. The idea is one that basically forces thieves to work to pay off their debts. And while being highly controversial to some, many have endorsed as an efficient form of justice.

The USA Today article begins by telling the story of Annita Husband, a woman charged with embezzlement from her employer, a payday loan supplier, to the tune of $13,000.

According to the article, Husband was sentenced to the “Flowood Restitution Center, a motel converted into jail surrounded by razor wire, nestled among truck stops and an outlet mall. Here, Husband slept in a room with seven other women, sharing a mirror to get ready in the mornings, enduring strip searches for contraband at night.”

It continued stating, “The corrections department would not release her until she earned enough money at her $7.25-an-hour part-time job to clear her debts and cover $11 a day for ‘room and board’ at Flowood.”

The piece pleads Husband’s case that the system she was sent to was unreasonably harsh, taking all of her earned money except for $10, with which she could buy things like “soap and deodorant.” However, it fails to mention that this was not Husband’s first offense. Nor was it her last.

The convicted thief also had charges for writing bad checks and stealing cash from Sears. Initially, when her embezzlement plans were made known, she was sentenced to seven years in prison.

However, “the judge allowed her to serve five years of probation instead as long as she paid $50 a month to the corrections department for monitoring her, plus $200 a month toward her fines, fees, and restitution.”

But caring for an unwell husband amid working low-paying jobs kept her struggling to make those payments. Finally, a judge made it known to her that if she didn’t pay those fees, real jail time would be in her future.

But instead of that encouraging her to make amends, she ran. She didn’t report to her probation and over the next few years, proceeded to violate that probation several times. As a result, she was sent to Flowood in 2015, where she worked near minimum wage to pay off her debts.

That is until she escaped the minimum security “prison” a short time later. After she was caught, she was put behind bars for about ten months and was still behind in her restitution by $10,000.

The article claims this to be a quite severe and outdated form of punishment. And they point to the state of Mississippi’s sordid past with race as a primary reason.

It reads, “The state has a long history of forcing prisoners – especially black men – to work. After slavery was abolished, Mississippi leased a soaring number of prisoners to private industry.

Public outcry over deaths and mistreatment forced the state to end that program in 1890. Mississippi then founded the state penitentiary known as Parchman Farm, which was modeled after a slave plantation. It still houses over 3,000 of the state’s 21,000 prisoners.”

However, for many, this a very reasonable alternative to real prison time.

Judge Charles Webster of Clarksville circuit court, for instance, says, “the program teaches them about responsibility by requiring them to show up for work and meet financial obligations. Going to the restitution center’s better than going to prison, I would think.”

And as Judge Dal Williamson of Jones County says, “you’ve got a victim out there that need to be made whole.” Paul Goldman, Husband’s former boss, says he rarely sees full restitution from employee theft.

This offers that. But more than that, he says he wants them in the program “just for the sake of justice.” After all, they have done a wrong, committed a crime, and therefore need to pay for that somehow.

However, as with all punishment systems, there do need to be some stipulations. For instance, Judge Williamson says that he will only support the program if those who have been sentenced to it have shown a complete unwillingness to repay their debts, as opposed to an inability to.

It is also noted that while the federal government outlawed debtors’ prisons in 1833, it remains up to the states if they allow them or not.

For now, Mississippi allows it. But continued negative attention like the USA Today article could change that.