Nicholas Kristof, © 2016 New York Times News Service
TULSA, Okla. — In the 1830s, the civilized world began to close debtors’ prisons, recognizing them as barbaric and also silly: The one way to ensure that citizens cannot repay debts is to lock them up.
In the 21st century, the United States has reinstated a broad system of debtors’ prisons, in effect making it a crime to be poor.
If you don’t believe me, come with me to the county jail in Tulsa. On the day I visited, 23 people were incarcerated for failure to pay government fines and fees, including one woman imprisoned because she couldn’t pay a fine for lacking a license plate.
I sat in the jail with Rosalind Hall, 53, a warm, mild-mannered woman with graying hair who has been imprisoned for a total of almost 18 months, in short stints, simply for failing to pay a blizzard of fines and fees relating to petty crimes (for which she separately served time). Hall has struggled for three decades with mental illness and drug addictions and has a long history of shoplifting to pay for drugs, but no violent record.
Tears welled in her eyes as she told how she was trying to turn her life around, no longer stealing, and steering clear of drugs for the last two years — but her fines and fees keep increasing and now total $11,258. With depression and…