The state public defender’s office has offered to coordinate a release effort for restitution center inmates who can no longer work to pay off court-ordered debts due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Mississippi Department of Corrections announced last week that the agency had suspended work for people sentenced to restitution centers as a precaution against the coronavirus. In the program, people work for private employers to pay off fines, fees and restitution. Their sentencing orders typically require that all debts are paid off before they can be released from the centers.

“I understand that Restitution Center residents are unable to work at this time but because of sentencing orders they cannot be released,” wrote State Public Defender André de Gruy in an email to top MDOC officials Friday. “And because of work stoppage the anticipated time many would have served will be extended. On top of that, residents of any institutional setting are at heightened health risk.”

De Gruy wrote that his office is volunteering to help people in the centers seek modifications of their sentences from courts. That would require MDOC to advise residents to contact either their attorneys or the Office of the State Public Defender, and to provide the state public defender with a copy of the sentencing orders.

“They were there to go to work and to have their money go to paying down their debt to society,” de Gruy said in an interview. “Now they can’t work through no fault of their own, but they’re not being allowed to go home where maybe they could find work or at least wouldn’t be up there in danger. We just thought something had to happen.”

He acknowledged that MDOC may have already taken steps to alleviate the problem. The agency, which has not reported any cases of COVID-19 in its facilities, did not respond to questions from Mississippi Today on Friday.

An investigation by Mississippi Today and The Marshall Project revealed that judges across the state lock up hundreds of people each year to these modern-day debtors’ prisons to pay off fines, fees and restitution to victims from felony convictions. The inmates spend months working low-wage, sometimes dangerous jobs, while the Mississippi Department of Corrections takes their paychecks, deducting room and board and transportation costs. 

Our investigation found that most of the people sentenced to the program, which has little oversight, were ordered to remain until they had paid off their debts, making their freedom contingent on their ability to earn money. Many were sent there on probation violations. Legal experts have said Mississippi’s program is unusual, if not unique in the country.

In his email, De Gruy also outlined specific steps MDOC could take regarding the program: Suspending the $11 in daily room and board fees residents pay to MDOC; assisting with unemployment claims; and prioritizing restitution to private entities over fines and fees to governmental entities for payouts of residents’ earnings.

Attorneys for the restitution center inmates could file a motion to modify their sentencing orders, de Gruy said. Judges could then release people from the restitution centers by placing them back on probation. 

“I am not naive to think these judges are going to all agree to do this,” de Gruy said. “And we’ll deal with that.”

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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.