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Investigation Finds Mississippi's Restitution Centers Act Like Debtor's Prisons


It all started with an unlikely tip - a woman living in state prison in Mississippi was also working at McDonald's and not voluntarily. That tip led Anna Wolfe and Michelle Liu, reporters at Mississippi Today, into a 14-month investigation of the state's restitution centers. They compare the facilities to modern-day debtors' prisons, and the people kept their working off fines and other debts rarely know how long they'll have to stay, says Anna Wolfe.

ANNA WOLFE: The correction department doesn't provide inmates with their debt balance. So it's very hard for them to figure out how much they're earning towards their debts and where their money is going.

CORNISH: People like Dixie D'Angelo. She worked four different jobs, trying to pay down more than $5,000 she owed for damaging a friend's car.

DIXIE D'ANGELO: I got so depressed yesterday when I was looking at that because I got two checks. And, I mean, it's not even - it's, like, 900 and something dollars for two checks, and I've been here six weeks.

WOLFE: This is Anna. All the while, as they're working, the department of corrections is taking out room and board and transportation off the top, and they are given very little documentation of where their money is going. Additionally, you know, they're there to pay victims, but most of their earnings are going to pay court fees and criminal fines.

CORNISH: Do the victims know about this?

MICHELLE LIU: This is Michelle. That's a good question. We find generally that court rules across the state mandate that when someone is paying off their debts, that the court takes the first cut.

CORNISH: I understand as reporters, you weren't actually allowed to go into the restitution centers. What were you able to learn about daily life and the kinds of jobs that those residents have?

WOLFE: So we talked to 50 - more than 50 people who had gone through the program. And I think there's this misconception that these facilities are some sort of residential program - they're not. They are prisons. The people in there, their movements are restricted. They are strip-searched every time they come back home after work. Even when they're at work, they're not allowed to talk on the phone or have visitors or take smoke breaks.

CORNISH: Mississippi's Department of Corrections, or the MDOC, declined your request for an interview. They did offer a statement. I'll read it here. It says, while individuals in this program are required to work, the MDOC does not force them to work; it merely assists them in finding employment. How do you hear this, given the experiences that you found in your reporting?

LIU: This is Michelle. We found that part of the statement specifically to be extremely interesting because we combed through over 200 sentencing orders, and we found that in almost every case, the explicit language of the sentencing order said that these folks had to stay in the restitution center, had to be locked up there, until they had made enough money to pay off their debts.

Likewise, the handbooks that - the state calls these people residents, not inmates. It doesn't consider them to be incarcerated. But the handbooks, these, quote, unquote, "residents" receive basically have program rules that say that if you refuse to work, if you participate in a work stoppage or you're even fired from your job, you can face consequences back at the restitution center.

WOLFE: Including going to prison.

LIU: Yes.

CORNISH: So you can't just say, look - I'm going to go work somewhere else and pay off the debt on my own.

LIU: No, because you're sentencing order by the judge who sentenced you pretty much lays out what you're going to do under the law.

CORNISH: What is the argument for restitution centers? I mean, is it any better than serving time in a formal prison? Does it have any better outcome, say, for the victims?

WOLFE: This is Anna. We found like so many things in government, this program is sort of flying under the radar. So there aren't, really, very loud proponents of this program. It's just something that's kind of perpetuated by judges really believing that these people need to learn some sort of responsibility.

Similarly, the employers think that they are doing a service by employing these folks and giving them a skill that they may not had before. But also, the program benefits the employers by providing them these reliable workers. You know, they know their employees are going to show up when the department of corrections is driving them to work every day.

LIU: This is Michelle again. I'll add, while some folks may say that these restitution centers are less harsh and less difficult than the experience of prison, one woman we talked to specifically said that it was the experience of not knowing the definitive end of her sentence that was so difficult and so miserable for her. She compared it to torture, effectively.

WOLFE: And this is Anna. Some even say they would have preferred to be in prison.

CORNISH: I mean, do you find people are there for just indefinite amounts of time?

LIU: So there is a limit of five years because our state law prohibits probation sentences for longer than five years.

CORNISH: That's a lot.

LIU: It is a lot.

CORNISH: ...Right? Depending on your crime.

LIU: It's a lot longer than some people would have spent in prison for their crime.

WOLFE: And I think it's also important to note that, you know, many of these crimes, a lot of them don't have traditional victims. So many of the crimes are related to drug addiction and poverty. So these centers exist for the poor because if you could pay off your debts, you would not end up there.

CORNISH: That's Anna Wolfe and Michelle Liu, reporters with Mississippi Today. Their investigation was published in partnership with The Marshall Project. Thank you so much for sharing your reporting with us.

WOLFE: Thanks, Audie.

LIU: Thanks for having us.

CORNISH: NPR has reached out to the Mississippi Department of Corrections for comment on this story. So far, they've offered none. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.