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There’s a place where judges sentence people not to a length of time, but to an amount of debt. They won’t be free until they earn enough at fast-food and manual labor jobs to pay off every penny.

Welcome to Mississippi’s restitution centers.

by Anna Wolfe and Michelle Liu | Data analysis by Andrew Calderón

Our 14-month-long investigation into these modern-day debtors prisons exposes how Mississippi locks people into prison-like work camps to pay off fines, fees and restitution to victims from felony convictions. The inmates are placed into low-wage, sometimes dangerous jobs, while Mississippi Department of Corrections handles their paychecks, taking the first cut in “room and board” and transportation costs.

Some people spent years earning their freedom.

This investigation was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, the USA TODAY-Network, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger and the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting. The Marshall Project is a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system; sign up for The Marshall Project's newsletters, or follow them on Facebook or Twitter.
How Mississippi's ‘supercharged temp agencies’ provide inmate labor to employers

Burger joints, meat processors and even private citizens look to the state’s restitution centers as reliable source of cheap labor

The prison system puts them to work and takes their paycheck, but inmates say something doesn't add up

Our investigation also 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.

How we investigated Mississippi's restitution centers

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 her. Then we found hundreds like her because of the state's restitution center program.