Readings — From the May 2015 issue

Municipal Bonds

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From a class-action lawsuit filed in February against the city of Ferguson, Missouri, for excessively fining and imprisoning residents for minor infractions. In March, the Department of Justice concluded that Ferguson relies on the “enforcement of code provisions” to generate a significant portion of revenue and that the police disproportionately target black residents. African Americans make up 67 percent of the population of Ferguson but receive 90 percent of tickets and face 93 percent of arrests.

Ronnie Tucker was arrested and taken to the Ferguson jail in May 2013. Jail staff informed him that he was being kept pursuant to a warrant in traffic cases from the city of Cool Valley, which paid Ferguson to house its inmate debtors. Tucker was never allowed to shower and spent weeks in the same clothes. He was not given hand soap or allowed to brush his teeth. He and other inmates begged to be allowed to wash themselves, but staff refused. Instead, multiple inmates were forced to sleep on the floor because there were not enough beds to accommodate all the debtors. Tucker was forced to sleep next to a dirty toilet surrounded by walls covered with urine, blood, and mucus.

Keilee Fant is a thirty-seven-year-old single mother. She works as a certified nursing assistant. In the past two decades, the city of Ferguson has jailed Fant more than a dozen times for her inability to make monetary payments on old traffic tickets, including one occasion in which she was held for nearly fifty days without a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, shower, or change of clothes. During that time, Fant missed her father’s funeral. Fant was confined in a cell that lacked basic hygiene (for example, she was not given feminine products for menstruation), medical care, and adequate food. On one occasion, an elderly woman being held was shivering because staff refused to give women more than one blanket each. After Fant allowed the woman to share her blanket, the guards began shouting at the women that they were “stanky-ass dykes” and “dirty whores.” On numerous occasions, guards mocked the women and would shout things like: “You hoes stink” and “You need to wash out your coochies.”

Roelif Carter is a sixty-two-year-old disabled military veteran given tickets by the city of Ferguson more than ten years ago. Each time Carter was held in the Ferguson jail was a humiliating and dangerous experience. He was not permitted a toothbrush or toothpaste and was not permitted to shower or wash his clothes. The water available to inmates, released from an apparatus connected to the top of the toilet, caused Carter to develop a sore throat whenever he drank it. Jail staff also refused to allow Carter the medication that he takes for high blood pressure and the head-pain medication for his brain aneurysm.

Allison Nelson is a twenty-three-year-old woman. She works now at a clothing store making near minimum wage. Nelson has been jailed on two occasions by the city because she has not been able to pay fines and costs from traffic tickets. Because of the threat of jail and constant cycle of increasing debts to the city of Ferguson, Nelson has been afraid to leave her home or even to get into a car as a passenger. Nelson’s dream for years has been to join the navy. After passing the relevant tests as a teenager, she was told by her recruiter that she could not join until she fixed all her unpaid traffic warrants and tickets.

Herbert Nelson Jr. is twenty-six years old. During one of his periods in the Jennings jail, Nelson developed two irritated areas on his leg that became infected and turned into boils the size of eggs. During a later period of incarceration in the Jennings jail, his boils flared and popped, and he was in excruciating pain. Jail staff refused to give him antibiotics, painkillers, or a doctor, even though the pants that he was wearing filled with blood and pus. Nelson now works as a painter. Because of his recent jailings he has lost a number of jobs and finds it difficult to be rehired. On one occasion, a co-worker filled in for Nelson and used the money earned from the job to pay for his release from jail.

Alfred Morris is a disabled veteran who relies on a pension from the Department of Veterans Affairs. The city locked Morris in a cage because he failed to pay fines and costs associated with violations of a municipal ordinance that prohibits people from having friends, relatives, or romantic partners stay overnight in their homes without naming the person on a written document in advance. Ferguson police accused Morris of violating this ordinance after they searched his home and found women’s articles.

Anthony Kimble was arrested and brought to the Ferguson jail in February 2013. The booking officer told him that he would be held in the jail until he paid $600 to the city. After two days, Kimble was informed that the city would accept $500 for his release. After two more days, he was informed that the city would accept $400 for his release. After two more days, Kimble was informed that the city would accept $300. Finally, after it was clear that Kimble could not pay, he was released by jail staff for free. He had spent nearly two weeks in jail and had lost approximately twelve to fifteen pounds.

When she was seventeen years old, Shameika Morris was charged with a minor municipal offense in Ferguson. When she was brought to the jail, the jail staff refused to let her use the bathroom, and Morris urinated on herself in the booking area. Jail staff were upset and retaliated against her by keeping her in jail for more than two weeks. In all of her time in the Ferguson jail, she has only been offered a shower on one occasion — during her first stay, over ten years ago. Many of the women in the jail became chronically dehydrated because they were afraid to drink the water, which has often been yellow in color.

Donyale Thomas was arrested and brought to the Ferguson jail in 2011. Thomas had been a passenger in a car, and officers arrested her when a check on her I.D. revealed an old case. Thomas was suffering at the time from a severe anxiety attack, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Thomas has difficulty being in small, confined spaces. Her mother, frightened for her daughter’s life, attempted to bring her prescription medication for these illnesses, but jail staff refused. On a subsequent occasion, Thomas was overcome with depression from being trapped in a cycle of debt and jailing for traffic tickets in several municipalities, which took her away from her children repeatedly. While languishing in jail in the city of Berkeley because she could not afford to pay for her release, Thomas attempted to commit suicide by strangling herself with her brassiere. She was taken to the hospital after the other women in her cell started screaming.

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