Single Moms Get Sucked Into the Cruelest Debtors’ Prison We’ve Ever Seen

Twanda Marshinda Brown is a single mom in South Carolina who was supporting her children by working at Burger King. In 2016, a court in Lexington County fined her around $2,300 for two traffic offenses. The judge ordered her to make monthly payments of $100, even though she explained she could only afford to pay $50 a month while taking care of her family.

Brown managed to make five payments. But then her son was hospitalized and several paychecks from her employer bounced. Brown fell behind on payments, and sheriff’s deputies arrested her. Brown was told she had to pay more than $1,900 to avoid being booked in jail. She didn’t have the money.

Across the country, state and local governments are running modern-day debtors’ prisons that rip families apart because they cannot afford fines and fees owed to courts, including for traffic offenses and misdemeanors. For single mothers of color, who are far more likely to live in poverty, the consequences are nothing short of devastating. I represent four of these women, including Brown, in Brown v. Lexington County, South Carolina, the ACLU’s lawsuit against one of the most draconian debtors prisons we’ve ever seen.  

In Lexington County, indigent people are jailed for weeks or months at a time when they simply cannot afford to pay court fines and fees without ever seeing a judge, being given a court hearing, or receiving help from a lawyer.

Brown didn’t have $1,900 as a single mother supporting her kids on a low wage job. Nationally, four in 10 adults cannot afford a $400 emergency expense, and women of color are more likely to be financially vulnerable than others. Not only is there a gender gap in poverty and income, but Black and Latina women experience higher poverty rates and lower wages than white women.

Through Brown and other initiatives, the ACLU is tackling the ways criminal justice practices harm of women of color due to the triple burden of gender, race, and financial vulnerability. Women are the fastest-rising demographic in jail and many mothers are separated from their children simply because they can’t afford bail before trial. Several states allow shackling incarcerated women while they are giving birth. Both mothers coming out of jail or prison as well as those sentenced only to pay fines and fees struggle to pay their debts to courts while providing for their families — leaving them vulnerable to collection practices that push poor people into debtors’ prison.

For Brown, the consequences of incarceration for poverty were heartbreaking. In her own words:

For 57 days, I was locked away in jail, away from my family. I cried every day. I prayed that my kids and grandkids would be okay. I could not be with my family when my cousin died. I could not be with them on my son’s 17th birthday or on my granddaughter’s first birthday. I lost my new job and the chance to get a promotion and a raise. I spent my 40th birthday in jail.

But even worse was the fear I had every day that my 13-year-old son would be taken away from me by the Department of Social Services. It made me feel sick to think that I could lose him while I was in jail because I could not afford to pay traffic fines.

Jailing someone because they cannot afford to pay court-imposed fines or fees is a direct violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, which promises due process and equal protection under the law. In addition to Brown, our plaintiffs include Cayeshia Johnson, Amy Marie Palacios, and Sasha Darby, all mothers of color seeking to hold Lexington County and three state officials responsible for the modern day debtors’ prison that separated them from their families and caused them to lose their jobs, pushing them into a cycle of debt and jail from which it is difficult to escape.

These mothers, and others, seek both policy reform and damages. Their lawsuit has already inspired change. Just months after it was filed, the chief justice of South Carolina’s court system issued a guidance to judges across that state that led to the recall of tens of thousands of arrest warrants of the type used to jail people unable to pay court fines and fees in Lexington County.  Brown continues to be litigated to secure more comprehensive reforms to protect the constitutional rights of poor people against debtors’ prisons.

The Brown plaintiffs are advocating for a country where poverty isn’t penalized and where women of color — along with everyone else — are treated fairly by the legal system. Justice requires nothing less.

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David N. Andrew...

Want any evidence of how corrupt the United States really is? This is it.

This is Victorian England - even pre-Victorian England - in the 21st Century.

And how the hell the top tiers of legislature are not embarrassed as hell about this, I really do not know.

Thank you ACLU for making this very visible. It is abuse, and it needs stopping.


I am a Social Worker and let me share my story. I have been in a ruthless battle for over 2 years to keep my son out of the hands of my ex- husband who has been accused of molesting my son from the ages of 6-10 until he finally spoke up. Long story but I will get to the point. This man has failed his pych eval, abuse was substantiated with Social Services as well as the Guardian ad litem. He has cut my child off from medical expenses, stopped paying his school tuition and much more because he is a narcissist . On December 15 I was ordered to pay 1950 for a pych eval or ordered to serve 10 days in the county jail. My current husband was dismissed from his job earlier in December. I am exhausted financially from this and I am still getting court and attorney fees. I was forced to use my bill money and any Christmas money to pay this or go to jail which put me behind on my mortgage and my vehicle. I was at the mercy of the Salvation army to help with Christmas for my kids .. I have another 480 dollars to pay here soon and have no idea where its coming from. This guy is counter suing me for full custody and all evidence says yes he abused my son.. WTH? That is what brings me here. I have dedicated my life to helping others in this same situation, and now I am in dire need of advocacy. My civil rights as a woman and as a mother have clearly been violated and will continue to be until this is done . But all worth it too keep my son safe. Thank you


My 33 year-old son died five days after serving 186 days in Forsyth County, GA jail for traffic charges he was not guilty of. The court pronounced him innocent on March 16, 2018 and the coroner pronounced him dead on March 21, 2018.
He did not receive oncologist ordered treatment during his incarceration for a previously diagnosed brain tumor and was not allowed to participate in classes , church services or other activities offered the general population because he needed to use a wheelchair. I am heart broken for anyone who has to endure this type of inhumane treatment simply because they are poor. Please please advocate for those whose voice has been stolen by a criminal justice system powered by profit and greed.


It costs nothing to obey the law, no court fees, no fines. Its very simple.


This is just one battle. We need more African American Lawyers. Become one.


DUI? Failure to stop at stop sign, broken tail light, Excessive speeding , .. If I were to donate to this relief and find these women were fined so much for a MINOR traffic violation then yea Shut up and take my money.. 2 DUI's for example not so much ..


The debtors prison needs to go away. My husband decided to leave the state his kids were in to go get his life together. His 2 ex’s ended up with his best friends. We have been together 22 years and we have 4 kids and we also gained custody of his 2 boys. We were court ordered to pay $1,500 a month we couldn’t do it. We were on state assistance. I quit my job to care for his boys they were too high risk for day care. They were found in a trailer no food or water. They kept throwing my husband in jail on warrant errors which left me with 6 kids stuck. We finally after 8 years got a reduction to $600 a month they have left him on probation for 17 years. He is finally off probation and the state that held jurisdiction asked our state to close. Our state is refusing and now we are facing a law suit against our state because the judge closed the case twice and said this is paid in full and Office of Childsupport is refusing to close. They have taken the accounting errors that they never updated with the originating state. So we now have obtained an attorney to sue the state. The judge was also mad because the old judge used to allow the warrants with out us or our attorney getting notified. This new judge took over they didn’t use due process with him and he stopped the court and asked the prosecutor if he needs to go over what due process is and that this is not going to happen in his court or should never happen in any court. This 20 year battle cost us our home, we moved 17 times with 6 kids, there were times the church had to help us to feed the family or we would have starved


That doesn't violate the Fourteenth Amendment. She got due process, and everyone who doesn't pay the elite lords and masters their due monies gets jailed and/or their property confiscated, equally.

Gotta come up with a better argument than that, or you'll be the judge's laugh for the day.


Why is it always about poor mom? This isn't just about moms, this is about everyone. Aclu your so biased


In 2013 I lost my job. Although my ex-wife had a full time job, she decided to quit it and make significantly less and went on welfare. The county came after me for those expenses, despite my inability to pay. I was incarcerated for failure to pay child support while not employed, there is no furlough for that in unmarried couples, yet if we were married, one half would be responsible for the family unit. I was incarcerated as the county required 10% of the payments missed as cash bail. I had to borrow $1,500+ from my fixed income grandparents to get out after 3 days. I was put in a cell, despite never committing a criminal offense, with a 2nd degree assaulter. Tell me about fairness?


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