When I ran into a recent Truthout article by Nadia Prupis, “Cash-Strapped States Resurrect “Debtors’ Prisons,” I had a sharp pain in my chest. It made me catch my breath.
I was flooded with visions from when I was a young man (22) serving hard labor on a rock-quarry chain-gang…one of the most brutal in the Old South.
The day I was released, September 17th, 1965, I was literally dragged out of the hole, an underground, dungeon-like cell. I didn’t really have an out-date; I was a “debtor” prisoner by then after having served triple my original sentence of 4-months on a misdemeanor related to my Civil Rights activity).
I wasn’t in the best of shape. They only served one “meal” every third day in the hole, and I was still recovering from an operation at Nashville General Hospital to remove a spoon handle from my stomach.
A warrant had been issued in Tennessee in ’63 after a series of run-ins with the law and the Klan there and in Georgia and Mississippi. After having served 8 months in jails, I was offered a misdemeanor charge and 4 months. Anticipating time-served and a return to the North, I took it.
You might imagine my surprise when I was chained-out to the Workhouse. “Oh, that 8 months don’t count, Yankee boy. That was your vacation. If you listened, the judge said ‘hard labor.’ That starts now.” After another 4 months, I was then told of the “court costs.” I soon learned that was an additional $600…at hard labor: $2/day. I had no one to pay it.
Ms. Prupis reports that NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice and the ACLU report a resurgence in 13 states resorting to debtors prisons to have the poor pay for their legal fees and other costs. Pay or go to jail, and when you do go to jail, you still pay or stay there. Also, at least 15 of the states studied have suspended drivers privileges for owed debts, and in another 7 you lose the right to vote until the debt is paid. Shades of the post-Civil War Black Codes…
Ironically, most of the early “immigrants” to early colonial America were prisoners and indentured debtors from England’s jails and prisons. Purchasing enslaved Africans by the masters of commerce didn’t become economically feasible in the colonies until 1619.
Up thru that period, it simply made more economic sense for the tobacco plantation owners, etc., to work prisoners to death (85% mortality rate in their first year). There was always a ready supply for more.
England didn’t start sending prisoners to Australia until 1776, when the colonies rebelled. For many colonists, the American Revolution was fought to escape the despotism of their creditors. That struggle continues. Debtors prisons are simply another way to criminalize the poor.
Part of the trick is for the court to assess an individual a fine, in default of support or other payments, and/or court costs. The person is then jailed in contempt of court if they don’t pay. Often, that person’s friends and family scrape together the funds. In effect, the court is exacting payment where it would otherwise be illegal. The worse the jail conditions the greater the incentive to find the money somewhere…
When they took me out of the hole, I was told I was going home. I assumed it was just another of their cruel jokes. But they took me to the Trailway’s depot and put me on the first bus going North. “Don’t come back south of the Mason-Dixon, Medvecky, or you’ll meet the same fate as your kind in Alabama and Mississippi.” (Viola Liuzzo, Chaney, Goodman & Schwerner, etc….)
I got off after a few blocks and walked over to the offices of the Nashville Tennessean . I was the only ex-prisoner to come forward with the inside story. I recall the crime reporter, Frank Ritter, telling me that they had done a number of articles on the Workhouse, but could never get the inside story (no surprise there, those guys have to live in the community when they get out).
He also told me that they had earlier published an editorial using my case condemning the debtors prison aspects of the Workhouse, along with the brutality of the rock-quarry. He cited the US Constitution (14th Amendment), and the Tennessee Constitution (Article I, §18).
Ideals. I love ‘em. In fact, I’ve bet my life on them on more than a few occasions. But you’ll have to forgive me if I’m a bit jaded these days. I’ve long since learned that most ideals are for sale to the highest bidder… There’s the social contract, then there’s often the real-deal: The predatory individual’s “right” for profit, privilege and power at the expense of all those around him. In between and below are the rest of us…
Frank later drove me back to the Trailway’s (Ritter was concerned over my being “re-captured”) to resume my journey north to Detroit. Subsequently, thru that series of feature article, resulted in a federal investigation of the Davidson County Workhouse, federal court receivership and the rock-quarry gang being shut down (it reopened 10 yrs later). I was proud that I was able to make a contribution to that circumstance…as I had promised those I left behind that I would.
Perhaps mine was the final straw in that immediate process when the news and feature stories followed in the Tennessean over the next few weeks.
I recall one wit on the chain once commenting aloud to the others: “You know what Medvecky is really in here for? Hi-Batry! Snatchin’ shit from a flying goose’s ass.”
We all got a good laugh, but that made as much sense as anything else…
Dr. Publico (Nick Medvecky, PsyD), October 2010...