Death by Debtors' Prison: Ray Staten's 16-Day Jail Sentence for Unpaid Court Fees Cost Him His Life

This piece originally appeared at The Guardian.

Ray Charles Staten Sr. should have celebrated his 60th birthday this month. Instead, his family marked the fourth anniversary of his death. It all started, according to a lawsuit that settled in March 2015, when a small debt became a death sentence in the spring of 2011.Unable to pay an outstanding debt of $409 in court fines, Mr. Staten was arrested and sentenced to 16 days in Mississippi's Harrison County Jail. Shortly after being booked at the jail, Mr. Staten fell seriously ill. Despite his obvious symptoms and his cellmates' cries for help, the jail's privately-contracted medical staff allowed his condition to worsen until – on the fifth day of his sentence – he collapsed in his cell and, upon being transported to a medical center, could not be revived. He had suffered acute peritonitis, a life-threatening infection of the abdominal lining for which early treatment is essential.

Whenever the government locks someone in jail, it has a constitutional duty to provide adequate medical care, a responsibility that can't be evaded simply by contracting it out to a for-profit company. Unfortunately, Mr. Staten's is a familiar story: the ACLU is currently litigating a case in a Mississippi prison that challenges, in part, the dangerously inadequate health care provided by Health Assurance, a private corporation also responsible for Mr. Staten's medical treatment — or lack thereof.

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Where to begin? Based on the evil history of Mississippi, maybe the Federal troops should still be occupying parts of the South to keep order. If only anyone cared about upholding the Constitution in the rest of the country. It would be nice not to allow private contractors who are not at all interested in care and maintenance of prisoners, but only in making money. Also not putting people into jail for inability to pay unnecessary court costs would be a sign of a civilized society. Why is it okay for a contractor to ignore someone who is in medical jeopardy but hold them for not being able to ante up for unneeded court proceedings?

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