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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report for America

‘Something seems fishy’: Bad bookkeeping and poor oversight plague a Mississippi inmate labor program

Our investigation revealed that the state fails to keep accurate records on who is in the program at any given time, how many people judges send there each year or how long inmates stay.

By Anna Wolfe and Michelle Liu | January 9, 2020

The Mississippi Department of Corrections runs the modern-day debtors prisons it calls restitution centers. But not very well. 

The agency doesn’t keep close track of how much people sentenced to the program earn and owe, according to dozens of current and former inmates interviewed by Mississippi Today. That makes it hard for them to figure out how long they need to work at mostly low-wage jobs to make enough money to earn their freedom.

On her paystubs, Sonic Drive-In employee Gaylia Mills wrote her own math equations, trying to figure out when she’d earn enough to be released from the jail where she lived.

Mississippi prohibits the workers from handling their own earnings and gives them little documentation of their debts. Where their money goes and whether it reaches the victims of their crimes remains a mystery to most inmates we talked to.

The state doesn’t even keep accurate records on who is in the program at any given time, how many people judges send there each year or how long they stay, according to data analyzed by Mississippi Today and The Marshall Project.

Oversight is so lax that a guard at one restitution center was able to steal more than $1,000 of inmates’ paychecks over four months, according to an indictment filed in February in Rankin County, east of Jackson. The guard pleaded guilty to embezzlement in November and a judge put her on probation for five years. Through her lawyer she declined to comment.

Corrections officials declined to discuss the restitution program. But in a statement in response to our findings, the department said it follows judges’ orders. 

The agency “provides program participants with documentation of their debt balance by providing a receipt of payment and also a monthly balance sheet,” the statement said.

Robert Johnson, who used to run the corrections department, said he didn’t realize people are held in the centers until they earn a certain amount of money, rather than being sentenced to serve a period of time. 

“I’m stunned by that,” said Johnson, who served as commissioner from 2000 to 2002 and now runs a probation-services company.

Photos by Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Tiarra Deal sifts through receipts she received from correctional officers at a restitution center in exchange for her paychecks. At her job at a Sonic Drive-In in Brandon, Deal made $8.25 an hour. The receipts were often inaccurate, she said, leading her to believe she never received some of her earnings.

Mississippi, like a growing number of states, has tried to end the practice of jailing people for being poor. In 2018, the Legislature passed a law requiring that judges find individuals have willfully failed to pay fines, fees or restitution before sending them to jail. 

Under the new law, judges are supposed to include time limits on some sentences to restitution centers — but that’s rarely happening, our analysis shows. Only 15 of the 214 inmates in the centers as of January 2019 were given time limits as well as amounts of money they needed to earn, according to our review of their court records.  

The only time in recent history the restitution centers came under the microscope, in a 2014 report by Mississippi’s legislative watchdog agency, the primary focus was how slowly victims got paid. At that time, local courts doled out payments to victims last, but since 2017 court rules require that the money inmates earn goes to victims before it covers criminal fines (though the court still takes its cut in fees first).

Between 2016 and 2018, the state allocated about $6.8 million to the corrections  department to operate the restitution centers. The inmates earned about $6.4 million in that time. Data from Harrison County on the Gulf Coast shows that years after people entered the restitution centers, they still owed more than a third of their total debts to the court. 

Inmates, lawyers and even some court staff say the state’s bad recordkeeping has kept people locked up even after they had earned enough money to leave. 

Photos by Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Julia Gonzales spent several months at the Flowood Restitution Center in 2015, working to pay off debts from an old drug possession case. She holds a calendar she sketched out there to estimate when she would earn enough money to be released. Gonzales relapsed while living at the center and, after being sent back to prison, eventually received court-ordered addiction treatment at Mississippi State Hospital. She now runs a construction business in Caledonia with her husband, works as a life coach and sits on the board of the local jail ministry Columbus Carpenters for Christ.

Justin Wetzel, the court clerk in Harrison County, said he gets calls about once a week from family members of inmates, asking why they haven’t been released after earning enough to cover their debts.

“Something seems fishy,” said Wetzel, who said he can’t get answers from the corrections department.

Frank Fairley, who pleaded guilty in 2012 to aiding in the robbery of a hotel clerk at the Hilton Garden Inn in Gulfport, said that’s what happened to him. The state released him from prison after he served about half of his five-year sentence, but he fell behind on his court-ordered payments. In 2018, a judge sentenced him to the Hinds County Restitution Center in Jackson to work off $2,237.50 in debt.

Unlike most restitution center inmates, Fairley got a job with pretty good pay — almost $14 an hour — driving a truck at a chicken processing plant. Within weeks, he figured he had earned enough to secure his freedom. But he said corrections officials wouldn’t let him go.

He finally walked off the job, turned himself in for leaving the program and spent a month in jail. A judge eventually confirmed he had paid all he owed. He was a free man.

In fact, Fairley said he overpaid his debt: “I should have like a $300 check.” But he is so happy to be out, he added, “If they don’t send it, I’m fine with that too.”

This story is part of an investigation published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for The Marshall Project’s newsletter, or follow them on Facebook or Twitter.

Read the rest of the series here.