Mississippi Restitution Centers Are an Unwelcome Throwback to slavery

Imagine being imprisoned because you can’t pay $656 that you owe. That can happen today in Mississippi, where poor people who cannot afford court ordered fines, fees, and other payments are put into restitution center prisons where they are forced to work until they pay off their debt.

The Marshall Project, a non-profit that investigates criminal justice, recently examined how in Mississippi, if a defendant cannot afford restitution for a crime or owes fees, they can be sentenced to one of the centers. There, a department of correction van takes them each morning to work, usually in minimum wage jobs such as fast food or meat processing. The department of corrections deducts $11/ day for room and board, gives the worker $10/ week for toiletries and personal expenses, and applies the remainder of their salary towards their debt.

At first, the scheme might seem to make some sense. Part of accepting responsibility for a crime is paying victims restitution, and paying court ordered fees is part of punishment. In principle, no one would dispute a judge’s right to order defendants to pay these things.

Losing Freedom over Small debts

But Mississippi is not just assigning the defendant a debt, or even garnishing their wages for that purpose. Mississippi is depriving a person of their liberty by holding them in jail so their debt is paid. People in the restitution centers are in prison. Their living arrangements are forced upon them by the prison’s administration, they cannot come and go or have guests, they are surrounded by fences or barbed wire, and they have no choice of what work they do.

It’s stunning how small the debts that land people in these restitution centers are. Half the debts are under $3515. And even for these fairly small amounts, consider how long the repayment will take. Working 40 hours a week at $7.50. hour, that’s $300 of weekly income. Deduct $77 for room and board and another $10/ week for personal expenses, that means the debt is being paid off at $213/ week (although many of the inmates are subjected to extra fees and expenses). Even at this optimal rate a person would be stuck in jail for about four months to pay off the average debt. And the Marshall Project found that many inmates are stuck in these centers for much, much longer.

Now it’s completely possible that if the inmate was set free the debt would be paid off more slowly or not at all. They might not get a job on their own, or if they do work might spend more on personal expenses leaving less for repayment. Of course, the debtor might also find higher paying work on the open market or receive training to qualify for more lucrative employment. But the point is that it’s shocking for monetary debts (and relatively small ones at that) to cause a person to be deprived of their basic freedom. There are consequences for not paying what we owe, but incarceration and being forced by guards to work for minimum wage would seem beyond the pale.

Another criticism of the restitution centers is that they are a section of the criminal justice system reserved only for the very poor. When the poor are segregated like this it’s almost inevitable that abuses and lapses in oversight will follow.

like the hebrew slave

It’s interesting how close this is to an institution established by the Torah: The Hebrew slave. A Hebrew slave (distinct from a Canaanite slave, which is different in Jewish law) is a Jewish person whom the court sells into slavery because he stole and cannot pay back for his theft. This way the victim of the theft is made whole from the proceeds of the sale of the thief.

While the Hebrew slave is the property of his owner and must labor on his owner’s behalf, he enjoys many protections. For example, he cannot be given backbreaking labor. So while the owner can order his Hebrew slave to plow, he must be told to plow only for a certain amount of time or a certain amount of field. He cannot be told to plow endlessly until the owner lets him stop. And the plowing must be useful work, not a needless chore the owner made up to keep his slave occupied.

The Hebrew slave cannot be made to do degrading work, such as taking off his owner’s shoes. An owner must provide a Hebrew slave with the same quality of food and clothing that he enjoys himself.

Jewish law has precluded owning a Hebrew slave in practice since the end of the counting of the Jubilee cycle, which was thousands of years ago. But the rules are still read from the Torah and studied in the Talmud, so we can wonder how we would feel about this today. What if a wealthy person were to keep a man working in his house, such that this man has no right to leave or end his employment, cannot come and go without permission, and does not receive a salary. But the owner feeds him well, gives him a warm room to sleep, and keeps his working conditions the same as regular, paid household help? Would anyone think this is okay? And let’s say the man was poor and had shoplifted from the wealthy man’s store, or been employed there and pocketed bills from the cash register. While there would be an element of measure for measure justice, does anyone really think that would make this arrangement right?

just because slavery is in the bible that doesn’t make it right

But this is essentially what the state of Mississippi is doing. In the 19th century, in the era of the civil war when the debate about slavery in the United States reached its peak, the fact that the Bible explicitly condones and allows slavery was advanced as a solid justification for that peculiar institution to continue. But as a society we decided no. The Bible will not be the final basis for our morality, and since keeping slaves is obviously immoral slavery had to go.

The observation that the scheme Mississippi has recently come up with to collect debts from the poor is similar to an ancient Biblical institution is not evidence that it’s moral, justified, or in any way good. What it shows is the truth of the famous statement of Ecclesiastes that there is nothing new under the sun. The problems that our society struggles with today are often similar to those of thousands of years ago, and any answer we come up with has usually in one form or another been tried before.

But the fact that something has been done before, even in the Torah, doesn’t mean we should try it again. We need first a fresh, careful examination of the moral issues involved because fortunately our sensibilities and sensitivities have changed drastically with time.

Mississippi should take a close look at these restitution centers and see that while they would certainly been used in olden times, now they are a vestige of slavery which we’ve emphatically done away with. It’s time for the inmates sentenced to these centers go free.

For Further Information:

Read details about Mississippi’s restitution centers from the Marshall Project.

Read about how the Marshall Project investigated the restitution centers here.

Jewish laws regarding treatment of a Hebrew slave are codified by Maimonides, see laws of slaves chapter one.

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