Debtors’ Prisons: Life Inside America’s For-Profit Justice System

This video provides an overview of the history of debtors’ prisons in the U.S. and features compelling commentary from citizens describing how our current system of court fines and fees put them in difficult situations and made them resort to desperate measures for survival. Although municipalities in Missouri are highlighted for raising a large share of their general revenue from fines and fees, this issue exists all over the country. The video also includes some commentary about private probation companies, which have only created more barriers to reentry for low-income Americans.

  • Some cities in Missouri generate 20 to almost 40% of their revenue from fines and fees; in 2013, the same year St. Louis County alone collected $60 million in fines and court fees, the municipality of Bel-Ridge handled 7,706 traffic citations, which averages out to at least 2 tickets per citizen.
  • Quality of life ordinances cause residents to pay fines for sagging pants, chipped paint on houses, mismatched blinds, or having a barbeque on the front yard.
  • A 24 year-old man in Jennings, MO hung himself in jail after being arrested for unpaid traffic tickets.
  • A judge in Alabama brought a mobile blood truck to the courthouse and told defendants that if they could not pay and didn’t want to go to jail, they would have to give blood.