Two reporters, Michelle Liu, left, and Anna Wolfe, center, met with inmates and their employers across Mississippi, beginning at fast food restaurants around Jackson, traveling to the Mississippi Delta and the Gulf Coast. Credit: Eric Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report for America

The tip we got at Mississippi Today seemed a little unlikely: a woman in state prison was also working at McDonald’s — and not voluntarily. But sure enough, we found Dixie D’Angelo, a woman with court-ordered debts of $5,000 because she damaged a friend’s car. She had been sentenced to something called a restitution center, where she worked four different restaurant jobs to try to pay off her debts and get out of jail.

Two reporters, Anna Wolfe and Michelle Liu, ultimately found that hundreds of people were in similar situations because of the state’s little-known restitution center program. Basically, we discovered, Mississippi was running a modern-day debtors prison.

We met with inmates and their employers across Mississippi, beginning at fast food restaurants around Jackson, traveling to the Mississippi Delta and the Gulf Coast. We found people using court documents and a list of work-camp inmates that the corrections department later removed from its website.

We interviewed more than 50 current and former restitution center inmates and a dozen national experts. We filed 30 public records requests. Using more than 200 sentencing orders, we built a database detailing how judges ordered people to the centers and how much money they had to pay.

With the help of Andrew R. Calderón at The Marshall Project, we analyzed that material as well as other data we got from the state. We requested population reports from the Mississippi Department of Corrections, which tell us the inmate population in each restitution center at the beginning of each month. The reports also include information like the average number of inmates employed in a given month and how many absconded, and more.

While the corrections department and most judges we contacted denied repeated interview requests for this story, we relied on hundreds of pages of court documents, hearing transcripts and policy manuals to corroborate the inmates’ stories.

This investigation was 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.

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Michelle Liu was a 2018 corps member for Report for America, a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms. She covered criminal justice issues across the state from June 2018 until May 2020. Prior to joining the Mississippi Today team, her work appeared in the New Haven Independent.

Anna Wolfe, a native of Tacoma, Wa., is an investigative reporter writing about poverty and economic justice. Before joining the staff at Mississippi Today in September of 2018, Anna worked for three years at Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s statewide daily newspaper. She also worked as an investigative reporter for the Center for Public Integrity and Jackson Free Press, the capital city’s alternative newsweekly. Anna has received national recognition for her work, including the 2021 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, the 2021 Collier Prize for State Government Accountability, the 2021 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award, the 2020 Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award and the February 2020 Sidney Award for reporting on Mississippi’s debtors prisons. She received the National Press Foundation’s 2020 Poverty and Inequality Award. She also received first place in the regional Green Eyeshade Awards in 2021 for Public Service in Online Journalism and 2020 for Business Reporting, and the local Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism in 2019 and 2018 for reporting on unfair medical billing practices and hunger in the Mississippi Delta.