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Chain-Gangs & Debtors Prisons…

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 had a busted hand and still recovering from surgery.

My release was a total surprise. 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 gut.

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 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.  Debtors and prisoners they got for free.

Viola Liuzzo, RIP 1965...

Viola Liuzzo, RIP 1965…

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 the bus 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 informed me that they had earlier published an editorial using my case condemning the debtors prison aspects of the court and 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 “private right” for profit, privilege and power at the expense of all others.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARitter later drove me back to the Trailway’s  (Frank was concerned over my being “re-captured”) to resume my journey north to Detroit.  Subsequently, that series of feature articles resulted in a federal investigation of the Davidson County Workhouse, federal court receivership and the rock-quarry gang being shut down.  I was proud that I was able to make a contribution to that circumstance . . . as I had promised those I had left behind.

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...

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10 Responses
  1. […]    I got a taste of this in the form of “debtors prison” process myself while I was engaged in civil rights activities in the South as recently as the 1960s, fully a hundred years after the Civil War.  Originally sentenced to a trumped-up misdemeanor at 4 months and costs at hard labor, I ended up serving well over a year before my eventual release (Tennessee, 1963-65).  I served much of that time on a particularly brutal rock-quarry, chain-gang.     […]

  2. […] I served time on a chain-gang in the Old South (1963-65), snitching was practically unheard of.  The one snitch that I recall in […]

  3. […] in ’65 at 23, when I was released from one of the South’s most brutal and notorious rock-quarry, chain-gangs, I was put on the first bus going north.   I got a factory job, earned enough money […]

  4. […] I first served time in prison (1964-65), it was virtually unheard of for rats to exist openly in population. Today, snitches are the […]

  5. […] 1963 I turned 21. I was living in Nashville and active in civil rights. Occasionally it was quite brutal, but never w/out a sense of our righteousness and eventual victory. I’m not sure I have that […]

  6. […] I worked and was active in the Civil Rights Movement throughout the Old South. After a year on a chain-gang (and my wife having moved on), I moved North to Detroit in 1965. I became a Quality Control […]

  7. […] gonna ever get out…as far as I knew. (Later at WSU in Detroit, AmerGovt-101, I learned that “debtors prisons” was one of the items eliminated by the American Revolution. Obviously ain’t a damn one of […]

  8. […] to any organization left me doing a year on one of the Old South’s most brutal rock-quarry, chain-gangs.  In September of ’65, they put me on a bus going north to Detroit w/a warning not to travel […]

  9. […] recovering in the “hole” from injuries on one of the South’s most notorious rock-quarry, chain-gangs at Nashville’s Davidson County Workhouse. (I was amused later when I saw the movie Cool Hand […]

  10. […] Other JFK timeline related events included the Berlin Wall, Laos and Vietnam, and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. After leaving the military and working more actively in the civil rights movement, the Kennedy Administration played a significant role in objective and moral support.  Believe me, having the federal gov’t—as halfheartedly as it was—was all the difference to those of us working in the KKK/police South. After his assassination, I ended up serving over a yr on one of the South’s most brutal chain-gangs. […]

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