Personal Narrative: Karen McNeil

Karen McNeil is a 53 year old, in Giles County, living in a friend’s mobile home. She has four adult children, an eighth grade education, and is functionally illiterate. She survives on Supplemental Security Income and foods stamps.  McNeil is unable to work because she was hit by truck 20 years ago. She also has cancer, fibromyalgia, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD). She uses an oxygen tank and a cane for walking.

In November 2015, McNeil pled guilty to driving with a revoked license. She was placed on probation for 11 months and 29 days and ordered to pay $426 in fines and fees, $25 each week in court costs and fines, $45 a month in supervision fees, and $45 for each drug test.  McNeil struggled to make payments and endured humiliating drug test. She was forced to urinate in the cup with the door open and one time in front of a male probation officer. She used money she needed for basic necessities to help pay her fines and fees. Ms. Mc Neil sacrificed her medication for chronic pain, money for the electricity bill, and her rent. She was homeless before moving into her friend’s mobile home.

Despite knowledge of her inability to pay, warrants were still issued for her arrest, and she was sentenced to 45 days in jail on different occasions. Warrants were issued because she was unable to pay her court fines and fees in full, a violation of her supervised probation. The probation officer informed her that fees could not be waived or reduced. When she tried to explain the extent of her indigency, the probation officer told her to pick up cans. She would stay in jail until someone came to pay for her release or until she served the full sentence. While in jail, she was forced to sleep on the floor because of overcrowding, she never received any medication, and was told to buy ibuprofen from the commissary. The guards refused to help her fill out a nurse request form and mocked her for her illiteracy.

It is very difficult for her to report to the probation office. She can’t drive because of the revoked license, she has to depend on friends, and if she walks she has to do it with the oxygen mask. In June 2017, she tested positive for a controlled substance. This violation of her probation resulted in $215 in court costs which she was unable to pay. She was booked into jail, because she was unable to pay the $2,500 secured financial condition of release that was pre-printed on the violation-of-probation arrest warrant. A friend paid a $300 non-refundable fee, and she was released.  She used half her disability check to repay the friend. Ms. McNeil couldn’t buy some of her medication, and had no money to pay for her probation.

With this violation, her probation was revoked, and she was sentenced to 65 days in jail. Upon her release from jail, CPS released her from probation.

Related: McNeil et al. v. Community Probation Services, LLC et al.