Think Debtors Prisons Are a Thing of the Past? Not in Mississippi.

The authors of this feature report detail the lived experiences of poor people sentenced to Mississippi’s restitution centers while they work to earn money to pay off court-ordered debts. Based on a sample of cases, the Wolfe and Liu report that individuals are at risk of being trapped in restitution centers for years, regardless of how much they owe, because they can only gain low-paying jobs. Furthermore, while serving their sentence, people are required to pay daily room and board costs, prohibited from speaking with their friends and family, and go without the necessary treatment to overcome alcohol and drug addictions.  

You can read the full text of the investigation here.

You’re [at the restitution center] without an end. You do not know when you’re getting out, when you’re going to be finished. That’s torture.

Key findings

  • Mississippi may be the only state where judges remand people to restitution centers for an indefinite period of time while they work and earn money to settle court debt. 
  • Some states instituted restitution programs in the 1970’s, but abandoned them because they were expensive and ineffective.
  • According to government records, Mississippi judges have sentenced hundreds of people annually to four Mississippi restitution centers, almost always ordering people to stay there until all of their court debt is paid off. 
  • Based upon a survey of 200 cases of people assigned to restitution centers, individuals did not owe a lot of money: half of them owed less than $3,515 and one person owed $656.50.
  • It is difficult for people to know how much their court debt balance is and how close they are to being released because of the state’s inaccurate and confusing record-keeping. 
  • While people spent between four months and five years on average at a restitution center working to pay off court debt, room and board and transportation costs simultaneously drove up people’s debt. 
  • Between 2016 and 2018, people at restitution centers had an average of $6.76 an hour allocated to pay off their debt while the remainder of their earnings went to additional fees they accumulated in the centers.
  • When people assigned to centers can’t get a job, they accrue $330 of additional debt in room and board costs monthly.
  • Black people account for 38 percent of Mississippi’s state population, but 49 percent of the population in restitution centers.
Anna Wolfe, Mississippi Today, Michelle Liu, Report for America, The Marshall Project