A Debtor’s Prison: Court fees and minor fines are leading to debilitating cycles of incarceration in the US

This short documentary film tells the story of two St. Louis women who were unjustly incarcerated because of failure to pay their fines and fees.

St. Louis county municipalities jailed Meredith Walker more than ten times, and she paid over $15,000 in fines and court costs owed to several St. Louis area towns. She was told that she had to pay her court debt at every municipality she owed before she was allowed to go home. They told her that if she was unable to pay at any of those courts, she would stay in jail until she was able to get the money, and then move to the next court. “That’s your yellow brick road,” one official told her.

Samantha Jenkins was arrested and jailed 19 times—for a total of 67 days of incarceration—because of her inability to pay one single traffic ticket. In her first hearing, a judge assessed Jenkins $1800 in fines and fees and put her on a payment plan. Because she had only recently been released from prison, Jenkins didn’t have a job at the time; though she was able to pay for the first four months, she was unable to pay for the fifth month, and the judge issued a warrant for her arrest after she missed a deadline.

Jenkins was the lead plaintiff in Jenkins v. City of Jennings, where the judge ruled in her favor and approved a landmark $4.75M settlement for 2000 class members. Every class member, including both Jenkins and Walker, received $1,500 for each day they were incarcerated.

Walker, speaking on the class action settlement: “It’s really not about the payout, it’s about admitting you were wrong. They’d rather pay us the money and have us shut up. They would pay twice as much if they could not admit they did it. But, you gotta admit you did it—and pay back.”

Related: Jenkins v. City of Jennings 

Aeon, Brett Story, Todd Chandler