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Prison Is a Debt Trap: Dr. Richelle Brooks on Carceral Debt

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Indebted - Debt and Race in America
Indebted - Debt and Race in America
Prison Is a Debt Trap: Dr. Richelle Brooks on Carceral Debt

When someone finishes a prison sentence, we often say they’ve “paid their debt to society.” But financial debt doesn’t stop chasing us if we find ourselves interacting with the criminal justice system. People charged with crimes who can’t make bail can find themselves in jail awaiting trial for weeks and months, unable to work. Or they may need to take out costly bail bonds so they can get out of jail and continue to support themselves and their families. And it’s no secret that Black and other people of color are much more likely to have encounters with law enforcement that result in arrests, fines, and fees. A bad interaction with the police on someone’s worst day can spiral into years of debt.

The complications listed only scratch the surface of what can be understood as carceral debt. Joining Maurice this episode to discuss the many debt traps and spirals embedded in the American carceral system is Dr. Richelle Brooks, the carceral debt organizer with the Debt Collective.

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[00:00:00] Maurice BP-Weeks: So this country has a bit of an obsession with police in prisons. How big of an obsession? 

[00:00:06] Sound on Tape: We should all agree, the answer is not to defund the police, it’s to fund 

[00:00:10] the police. Fund them. 

[00:00:13] Maurice BP-Weeks: Well, we have about two 

[00:00:17] million people in prison.

[00:00:21] That’s a quarter of all people who are in prison across the entire globe. We arrest about 10 million people per year. [00:00:30] And that’s just arrests and imprisonment. We take in a lot of money, through fines and fees. That problem famously came to center stage in public view when it was reported that Ferguson, Missouri, where Mike Brown was murdered in 2014, was taking advantage of their citizens and making fines and fees their second source of income.

[00:00:50] Sound on Tape: Also released by the Justice Department today, this investigation found a community that was deeply polarized. A community where local authorities [00:01:00] consistently approached law enforcement, not as a means for protecting public safety, but as a way to generate 

[00:01:07] Maurice BP-Weeks: revenue. That’s Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder back in 2015, citing these fees as one of the many systemic failures that led to Brown’s murder.

[00:01:16] But it ain’t just small towns like Ferguson. New York City collected over a billion dollars in fines and fees in 2018. Our criminal justice system isn’t really based on justice. I mean, every day, thousands and thousands of people are arrested, [00:01:30] many of whom are just having their worst day. Some of those people are just trying to survive in what is a tough economic situation to survive in, and then they’re caught up in the far reaching prison industrial complex.

[00:01:43] Even more people find themselves incarcerated only because they are in debt. Modern day debtor’s prisons called pre trial detention. Basically, this is a group of people who are not yet able to afford bail. They might have a court date in a week or a month or a [00:02:00] year, but they can’t go anywhere.

[00:02:02] Imprisoned without a trial at Rikers Island, the notorious and deadly New York city prison. 87 percent of the population is in this category.

[00:02:28] Welcome to episode six of Indebted, [00:02:30] a podcast about debt and race in America. I’m your host Maurice BP Weeks, a lifelong economic and racial justice organizer. Each episode, we tackle a different aspect of debt, exploring how it works and why it spells bad news for black people and our entire economy.

[00:02:46] We’re talking about how debt and the criminal justice system link today, carceral debt. Let’s get into it.

[00:02:57] The racial disparities here are among the [00:03:00] most staggering. Studies show that half of black males are arrested prior to age 23. Black people make up less than 14 percent of the population, but almost 40 percent of the prison population. Black people are more likely to be stopped, ticketed, questioned, and harassed by the police.

[00:03:19] It’s five times more likely that a black person is stopped without cause. And that’s all not to mention the staggering amounts of police brutality we’ve seen more frequently than ever, [00:03:30] documented by video. Activists and scholars have defined our obsession with police and prisons as the prison industrial complex.

[00:03:38] It’s a way to talk about the entire system of police and prisons, from the government’s role to the role of private corporations. Getting caught in the prison industrial complex is like getting trapped in a vice. Everything you try to do to get out seems to pull you further in. People caught in the prison industrial complex find themselves struggling to find stable [00:04:00] housing or stable jobs.

[00:04:01] They often continue to be harassed by the police. They might also be the subject of e carceration, things like ankle bracelets, for a long time after they’ve made it out. But that’s not all of it. What about the debt that is incurred by individuals in the carceral system? What about the debt their families incur?

[00:04:21] When someone’s released from prison, they say, hey, this person’s paid their debt to society. But does that include financial debts? A [00:04:30] study from the Brennan Center documents some of the ways that debt hampers individuals ability to re enter society. We’ll link it in the show notes. The report discusses the cycle that people often go through after conviction.

[00:04:42] Failure to pay debts can result in people being re incarcerated, having their license and driving rights suspended, even losing their right to vote. Why the aggressive tactics to collect money from people who almost certainly can’t pay? Well, that may stem from an [00:05:00] over reliance on fines and fees to fund our government.

[00:05:04] That same report referred to the role courts are forced to play as, quote, a collection arm of the state. All of this, and we haven’t even mentioned victim restitution, or child support, or private companies controlling prison phone communications. This is an enormous topic. I wanted to talk with an expert.

[00:05:25] No. The expert on carceral debt. So I went back to my friends at the Debt [00:05:30] Collective and called their carceral debt organizer. 

[00:05:33] Dr. Richelle Brooks: Yeah, I’m Dr. Rochelle Brooks. I am a carceral debt organizer, one of two carceral debt organizers with the Debt Collective. I’m also an educator, um, based in Los Angeles, California, and a mommy.

[00:05:48] All 

[00:05:49] Maurice BP-Weeks: amazing titles to have. So I’m so excited to talk to you, Rochelle. I mean, as I’ve mentioned on the show before, I’m a, I’m a Debt Collective super fan. Um, and I was so so [00:06:00] excited when, uh, the Debt Collective expanded to doing this work around carceral debt. Um, I’m wondering to start off, if you can just define for everyone, like, what, what is carceral debt exactly?

[00:06:12] How would you define it? 

[00:06:14] Dr. Richelle Brooks: Oh, the million dollar question. We get this question all the time. You know, the Debt Collective is known for student loan debt. So when people hear carceral debt, they’re like, How does that relate to what I’m experiencing? Right? Yeah. So carceral debt is pretty much any [00:06:30] financial obligation or burden that individuals and their families face because of their involvement with their criminal legal system.

[00:06:36] So this can include various costs, such as fines. It can be court fees. It can be bail, even the expenses that relate that relate to being incarcerated that we don’t think about, right? Like phone calls, commentary items. All of those things add up to indebtedness and it creates a cycle of financial hardship, especially for those who already have limited resources.[00:07:00] 

[00:07:00] And you know, it’s a topic of concern, I think for me, because I’ve been impacted by the criminal legal system for one, but also because, um, it perpetuates inequalities. It hinders folks abilities to reintegrate into society. When you have indebtedness, it’s somewhat a form of enslavement, right? Um, so it, it impacts folks freedom.

[00:07:27] So that is carceral debt all the way [00:07:30] from fees being stopped by the police. Um, court fees, bail. Oh, and then also something that we also miss is shadow debt. When folks are incarcerated, their families have to take on debt because of their absence. Right? So if I’m a mom, if I’m the breadwinner of the family and I get incarcerated and my family cannot survive with my income being taken away or extracted from the household, then they in turn have to take on [00:08:00] large amounts of debt just to survive.

[00:08:02] Right. 

[00:08:03] Maurice BP-Weeks: Right. And of course, since we’re talking about the criminal legal system, this is outrageously, disproportionately impacting black and brown and poor folks. Um, I would imagine, I’m sure the numbers bear that out as well. Of course. So, I’m, I, I want to talk about some of the types of carceral death that you mentioned.

[00:08:25] Um, one in particular, I mean, I certainly had come across it, but I [00:08:30] think became really infamous for me during the Ferguson uprisings of 2014, um, is fines and fees. And, uh, I’m wondering if you could just talk a little bit about how that is a problem, maybe how it became a problem too, and how big of a problem that is.

[00:08:51] Dr. Richelle Brooks: Yeah. So I, I guess I’ll start off by saying kind of what fines and fees are. Um, when you’re stopped by a police officer, um, and you’re given a [00:09:00] ticket, right, that’s a fine. And then if you, let’s say you can’t pay that ticket or you need to set up a payment plan for that ticket, um, you increase fees, you increase fees for being, not being able to pay that fine or even asking for a payment plan.

[00:09:15] Right? So that, that’s an example of what fines and fees are. And it, it becomes a problem inherently just by existing. Um, but what we see is that there is an over reliance for certain jurisdictions. [00:09:30] Um, to depend on fines and fees as revenue. And as you can imagine, if jurisdictions are depending on fines and fees to exist, it can be problematic, right?

[00:09:41] That in itself, that practice is regressive. Uh, fines and fees disproportionately affect low income folks and communities. And when you put these costs on those people who are already financially vulnerable, it leads to increased economic hardship. It perpetuates poverty. Um, and that’s what we [00:10:00] saw, especially in places like Ferguson, um, where there’s an over reliance on these fines and fees to stimulate, uh, the, the, the revenue for that jurisdiction.

[00:10:14] Uh, when, when governments depend on these revenues, right, there’s an incentive for law enforcement agencies to issue more citations, to make more arrests. It doesn’t always align with the goal of it never hardly ever aligns with the goal of maintaining [00:10:30] public safety, right? You see this over policing in places where they know if we go into this poor neighborhood We’re gonna see people that have registration that’s behind.

[00:10:40] We’re gonna see people with tags that aren’t up to date We’re gonna see people that have unpaid citations. So they go into these vulnerable communities, which is a predatory practice knowing that they’re going to be able to Stop them and make an arrest or, um, make a site issue of citation so that they can get these fines and [00:11:00] fees.

[00:11:00] And when you cannot pay right, the failure to pay the fines and fees were low results in legal consequences. You get arrest warrants, you get driver’s license suspensions, you get imprisonment sometimes, right? So it perpetuates and it creates the cycle of debt and incarceration. So we’re seeing the criminalization of poverty where individuals are penalized for their inability to pay.

[00:11:23] And, and I really appreciate, you know, the way that the Black Lives Matter movement [00:11:30] and, you know, bringing awareness to what’s happening. In places like Ferguson, um, so that people can see that relying on fines and fees is inefficient. And, oh, and another thing that there’s a cost, um, with collecting and processing these payments and in most jurisdictions, it outweighs the revenue that’s even generated.

[00:11:52] I know that’s the case in Los Angeles, right? So we’re collecting these fines and fees. It’s costly. It’s burdensome. We have to hire [00:12:00] more officers. Um, we hear the phrase defund the police often, um, it’s gaining popularity, right, widespread attention and it’s because of things like this. We’re misusing public funds in ways that actually negatively impact the public, especially the poor and the communities of color.

[00:12:16] Yeah. 

[00:12:17] Maurice BP-Weeks: Yeah. I think what you bring up is, is kind of the, what, what I see as sort of a main problem with carceral debt in general, where, you know, it. It also just logically doesn’t make any sense, like you’re saying the collection [00:12:30] costs are more than the actual money that you collect and just the, the theory of trying to collect money from someone who couldn’t pay you money is, just seems really, really silly and, and wacky to me and, and, and backwards and kind of makes me think like, okay, so this is just another example of.

[00:12:53] American systemic racism. And it’s kind of cloaked in, um, both systemic racism and [00:13:00] classism. And it’s kind of cloaked in this, um, you know, vague notion of this is justice in our country or something like that. 

[00:13:07] Dr. Richelle Brooks: That’s exactly what it is, you know, and I, I think it being strange or silly or backwards is like giving it credit, right?

[00:13:14] It definitely is systemic predatory. It’s intentionally designed this way. Um, we’ve had it figured out for a while that they, that, uh, Black and brown folks, that folks of working class community are disproportionately affected [00:13:30] and we still see it happening, right? 

[00:13:32] Maurice BP-Weeks: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Rochelle, how does, how does carceral debt, like, interact with other kinds of debt?

[00:13:39] Like, I’m imagining the folks who are the target of these, this kind of, like, ticky tack fines and fees, um, are also folks who would be in student debt and medical debt. And I know the Debt Collective works with folks who are in those categories. Do you see a lot of overlapping people who are just like in a tremendous amount of all of these types of debt.[00:14:00] 

[00:14:01] Dr. Richelle Brooks: Yeah. And when we refer to it in the debt collective is household debt. Um, so everybody has it right in, in order to survive pretty much in America, you accrue debt. That’s sad that our survival depends on indebtedness, but that’s kind of the case here. Um, but in terms of incarceration perpetuates itself, it perpetuates indebtedness of all types.

[00:14:24] If someone’s incarcerated then, and they accrue this carceral debt and they serve time in [00:14:30] prison or jail, they can lose their job. Right. They can lose their income. And that’s not just while they’re incarcerated. That’s even after they’re released. Um, they might struggle to find employment, making it difficult to address their financial obligations in the first place.

[00:14:44] And that includes their student debt and their medical debt. So although each, each type of debt creates its own financial burdens, um, You know, when individuals have multiple forms of debt, their overall financial strain, [00:15:00] it compounds. It’s more substantial. Um, and you see in poor communities, the stress.

[00:15:08] It’s literally the stress of dealing with multiple forms of debt, carceral debt, student debt, medical debt. It has adverse effects on mental and physical health. We see that. We know that when bill collectors are calling, people are literally having anxiety attacks. So this increases the likelihood of accruing medical debt.

[00:15:27] It works in a perpetual system. [00:15:30] Poor people can’t, they don’t have the. Oftentimes the ability to afford proper health insurance, um, and they go into debt when they experience health issues and they, they have difficulty attaining the healthcare coverage necessary. So they take on more medical debt. Um, and this stems from being incarcerated or experiencing, you know, injustices within the criminal legal system.

[00:15:56] Uh, you see folks credit scores affected. [00:16:00] Um, with large amounts of debt, carceral debt, student loan debt, medical debt add up. To a debt to income ratio, right? The more debt that you have, um, the less likely it is that you’ll own a home. You’ll be able to purchase a car, which inhibits your ability to be mobile and get around.

[00:16:19] Um, there’s legal consequences. There’s arrest warrants. So if you have student loan debt, for example, and they, they just return the payments to student loan debt [00:16:30] and you have to choose between making your student loan debt payments or getting your paycheck garnished, because that’s what happens if you don’t make your student loan payments, right.

[00:16:39] Or paying a ticket. And you choose to pay your student loan payment that month, there’s a chance that you can have a warrant for your arrest and risk your freedom. So yeah, they all intersect. Um, and I think, you know, carceral debt in particular, it creates a cycle of incarceration and debt, and it makes it even more challenging to address [00:17:00] any other financial obligation that, you know, we face.

[00:17:06] Sound on Tape: Hi, this is Kayden, the publisher of Convergence Magazine. There are a lot of places that you can put your hard earned money in support of our movements, but if you’re enjoying this show, I hope you’ll consider subscribing to Convergence on Patreon. We’re a small, independent operation and rely heavily on our readers and listeners like you to support our work.

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[00:17:50] Maurice BP-Weeks: You mentioned earlier about, uh, you know, this not just impacting the person who kind of initially takes on the debt or is the target, but their entire [00:18:00] family and, and, you know, it can connect to, to everyone in your, in your family.

[00:18:05] And I want to quick shout out to, uh, the group worth rises that has worked on prison communications in particular and just how exploitative that is and, uh, the companies that run it charging, you know, five to 10 a minute or something for folks to talk to their loved ones. Um, but I also, I wanted to ask you, I mean, I, I saw on some [00:18:30] of the debt collective, uh, materials that over a million people in California are in bail debt.

[00:18:39] Um, and I think folks who have not had to deal directly with A loved one being arrested might not understand how bail debt works, or who the villains are, um, how bail bonds work at all. I’m wondering if you could sort of explain that process. [00:19:00] 

[00:19:00] Dr. Richelle Brooks: Yeah, of course. So to be clear, it’s predatory in nature, right?

[00:19:04] The systems, the villain, bell companies, courts, they’re all accomplices in this predatory system, predatory and broken system. Uh, so what happens is you’re arrested, right? You can’t make bail. Um, typically what happens is your family goes out and they seek a bail bond. Uh, so it’s meant to serve as a guarantee that whoever is arrested that [00:19:30] will return to court.

[00:19:31] Right. If they cannot pay bail, then they turn to a bail bondsman. Um, and there’s a fee charge. Whenever you go to a bail bondsman, there’s a percentage of your total bail amount in exchange for posting bail that you have to pay. If the defendant, if the person that was arrested does appear in court, then the bail is returned to the bail bondsman.

[00:19:53] However, the fee that you paid to the bail bondsman is non refundable. So they’re getting their money back. [00:20:00] The bill that they put up for you, and then you go to court, you do everything that you’re supposed to do, but you don’t get that fee refunded to you. Uh, so that’s what makes, well, well, that’s why bail bond companies, um, are shady, right?

[00:20:14] Why they’re the villains. In this case, um, they profit from the inability for people to being, being able to pay their bail in full. The fees charged, sometimes they’re significant. Sometimes they’re a percentage 10%. Um, but [00:20:30] they actually accrue interest too on a short term loan, right? That’s, that’s kind of what we’re seeing.

[00:20:35] We’re seeing, um, they’re giving you a loan and they’re taking interest off of it. So the American way, the American dream. And of course, yeah, it affects, it affects marginalized communities disproportionately because when people with money get arrested, they have cash bill. They don’t have to accrue additional fines and fees to get out of jail.

[00:20:58] Um, [00:21:00] and it’s. It’s often set at amounts that low income individuals can’t afford in the first place. So, yeah, they have fewer resources, they’re already at a disadvantage. And if they can’t, let’s say that they can’t pay their fees, um, then it leads to, again, that perpetual cycle that we see of financial hardship and more legal troubles.

[00:21:23] Uh, and one of the things that I like to point out too with, um, Belle, [00:21:30] there’s this idea of, in some cases, there’s pre trial detention, so when you can’t pay Belle, it leads to people being held in jail for extended periods of time before their guilt or innocence is even determined by a court. Right. So before you have even been convicted of anything, if you cannot afford that bill or you can’t afford that fee, you stay in jail.

[00:21:55] Right. So the court, again, this is, this is where you see the court being the [00:22:00] villains, um, of a predatory system. So 

[00:22:03] Maurice BP-Weeks: earlier in this episode that, you know, in Rikers Island, for instance, that’s 87 percent of the people who are at Rikers Island are in that category have not been determined to be guilty of a crime.

[00:22:13] Yeah. 

[00:22:15] Dr. Richelle Brooks: Exactly. And it undermines the presumption of innocence. Um, if you are convicted of a crime and you’re in prison, that’s one thing, but it’s unethical and even it’s actually unconstitutional to be imprisoned [00:22:30] for a crime that you have yet to be convicted of. So yeah, we, we see the burden of debt, um, disproportionately affecting communities of color.

[00:22:37] And it contributes to this wider issue of racial inequality, of racism, of, um, you know, upholding white supremacy within the criminal legal system. Um, and even there’s even the situation where black and brown folks sometimes plead guilty simply to secure the release. Yeah. [00:23:00] And they, they know that, Hey, I have a public defender.

[00:23:03] I’ll plead guilty and I’ll be able to leave. Um, I, I’ve been in a situation where that was conveyed to me, right? I didn’t know that. You know, you say one thing, um, and they use it against you. These people are not your friends, but that’s used. That is a tactic that’s used. You say this and you can go free and you’re actually pleading guilty.

[00:23:27] And, and all you’re thinking of is freedom and [00:23:30] being able to get home to your family and not placing that burden on your family. So yeah, all of these things, um. It just, it leads to wrongful convictions. It leads to injustices. It leads to insurmountable amounts of debt and both the courts are to blame.

[00:23:46] The Bell Bonds companies are to blame, but primarily it’s a system that’s created, um, to be predatory and keep folks indebted and incarcerated. That’s to blame. [00:24:00] 

[00:24:00] Maurice BP-Weeks: I’m thinking about how to ask this next question for, because for me, I mean, what you’re, what you’re describing, you know, you’ve, you’ve used the word systemic.

[00:24:10] Several times, and named many different villains here, we’ll call them, um, folks who are, are accomplices, I think is a word that you used, and I mean, for me, it, this just gives way more credence to the notion that to fix this system, [00:24:30] we Well, we can’t fix the system. We kind of have to abolish it and like, kind of bleeds into, um, the abolition of the prison industrial complex generally.

[00:24:41] Um, and I’m, I’m wondering if you see it the same, if you see it that way, or is there another way that, that. Yeah, 

[00:24:52] Dr. Richelle Brooks: I see it that way. Um, personally, uh, the debt collective itself, you know, we’re debtors union. So we’re [00:25:00] abolitionists in nature. Um, our organizing strategy, it looks and feels a bit different than other orgs because we’re not trying to reform a system, just like you said.

[00:25:09] Um, it really is about creating something new. So we’re aiming to leverage the collective power to get rid of what is. We do not want this. We know that it’s. predatory. We know that it’s ineffective. We know that it’s systemically racist. And I, I haven’t used the word sexist, but it’s also systemically sexist, right?

[00:25:27] Um, women, women of color [00:25:30] are affected by bell, um, and affected by being arrested because one, the men in our families are arrested at higher rates. And then two black women and women of color are arrested at higher rates. Um, then one. Yeah. So, so it also is a systemically sexist issue. Um, so we, we want to get rid of it and create something new altogether.

[00:25:53] So for us, we organize with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated folks. We want the people that are [00:26:00] most impacted to lead the struggle and the, the challenge and resisting the practices are in place. Um. So, yeah, it’s not the same. I think our organizing strategy is not the same as other orgs that are doing the same type of work.

[00:26:18] Um, we want to topple the system, right? And I know we’re, I’m going to talk about this in a bit, but we created a Bell debt tool and it allows anyone that has Bell [00:26:30] debt to use collective power to call out and challenge predatory practices of Bell bond companies. Yeah. 

[00:26:35] Maurice BP-Weeks: Can you explain how that, how that works?

[00:26:37] Let’s just jump right in, right into 

[00:26:39] Dr. Richelle Brooks: that. Yeah, of course. Um, so it’s, it’s called the council bell debt tool. It helps people who bailed anyone out of jail using a bell bond company. It helps them dispute their illegal. So I want to make that clear. It’s illegal bell debt. Um, so together we work to end the collection of over [00:27:00] 500 million in this illegal and harmful debt.

[00:27:04] Uh, in California, bell bond, bell bond companies. They routinely, they do this on a regular, they violate the state’s consumer protection laws. Um, and we figured that out just by talking to folks and, you know, being on the ground and, um, looking through documents, we’ve got to find an amazing legal team, uh, behind us.

[00:27:25] So we created this Bell debt tool to, it was designed to get rid of debt [00:27:30] that is not legally enforceable. Um, it asks 24 questions, you know, anybody can use it. It’s pretty user friendly. Um, it asks about the specific Bell situation. And then we gather the user’s contact information, we get the information about the bail contract, we get information about the bail bond company, and how they’ve been interacting with the user.

[00:27:55] And then after they fill out the questionnaire, it creates a dispute letter, so it automatically [00:28:00] generates a dispute letter for that individual. circumstance. Um, and it outlines all of the legal problems with the contract and it demands debt cancellation. So yeah, the, I, we, we’ve been organizing, um, using this Dell, this Bell bond.

[00:28:17] Company, um, council bill that tool and, um, we’ve actually been able to counsel some debt. So I think that you have to understand with our, [00:28:30] uh, organizing strategy. Um, we want to call out, we want to challenge, we want to have accountability and literally throw, throw this. The Bell Bonds companies on their heads, right?

[00:28:48] We want to flip it and have them understand that we have the power in the more people that we get, um, the more power that we have, [00:29:00] because ultimately what will happen if they see that, you know, these people are united, they understand that we’re using the legal tactics to get money from folks. Then that’ll change.

[00:29:12] Um, right. So sometimes they counsel the debt, sometimes they try to negotiate. Um, but no matter what the response is, they’re we’re, we’re here, we’re supporting the users of the bill debt tool and to, to fight for debt abolition, to build collective power, to abolish cash [00:29:30] bail. We want to abolish it in California and beyond.

[00:29:35] Maurice BP-Weeks: That’s great. And we’ll, we’re gonna make sure to link to that tool in our show notes, um, just because. It’s such a great, great organizing strategy that you guys have as always. I guess my last question about the organizing side of things is It’s, you know, we, we’ve touched on really just a small piece of [00:30:00] carceral debt, unfortunately.

[00:30:02] Um, in our country, it’s just such a broad. Issue because the prison industrial complex is so broad and I’m wondering if y’all hear from or would like to hear from people who you know are In debt because they’re in some kind of a diversion program which is something that happens if folks are let’s say shoplifting and and a corporation has them go [00:30:30] there instead of being arrested and that cost them a bunch of money or Um, are in debt because of something with their child support or some, you know, all of the other ways that the, uh, criminal justice system puts folks in debt.

[00:30:44] Can, can we, should listeners out there be sending folks to the debt collective, no matter what type of carceral debt is, uh, they’re dealing with? 

[00:30:53] Dr. Richelle Brooks: Oh yeah, 100%. So yeah, like I said earlier, we consider it household debt, any form of [00:31:00] debt that you have, we want to organize around. Uh, and that if it stems from your experiences or your touch points with a criminal legal system and it’s carceral debt, even if the Bell debt tool is not designed for that specific situation, we want to be able to create perhaps a different tool that can, um, abolish that specific type of debt, or even if it’s not a tool, um, we’re very good at [00:31:30] creating these tools.

[00:31:31] That address these types of debts, but it doesn’t have to be a toll. We can, there’s, there’s other things that we can do. We don’t do any lobbying, but there’s ways that we can advocate to change state, local federal policies. Um, we can work for the elimination of different fines and fees. We can work in coalition with different orgs.

[00:31:53] To, um, you know, build networks of support for individuals that are affected by carceral debt, offer [00:32:00] resources, guidance, assistance in navigating the criminal legal system. We do debt clinics where folks come with their very specific situations. And we can, you know, we don’t give financial advice, but we can support through their navigation of their specific debt situation.

[00:32:18] So absolutely, we, we, we partner with legal aid organizations. We have lawyers that are willing to provide, you know, legal services with anybody that’s dealing with carceral debt, anybody that’s dealing with, um, legal, [00:32:30] criminal legal debt, student loan debt, medical debt, and housing debt. Contact us if you’re based out in L.

[00:32:38] A. the second Saturday of each month. We have debt clinics where, like I said, we get to know you as an individual, get to know your specific circumstance. We can organize on an individual basis, but what we like to do really is sit down, talk with you, invite you to join the union. Um, so that we can organize using our [00:33:00] collective power because there’s power there, right?

[00:33:03] If you have that, that you, the bank owns you or the bail bonds own you or the government owns you. But if we all have a certain amount of debt, the idea is that we have the power, right? We own the bank. We owe the belt on the bail bond company. We own the government. We are the government. So we’ll get to know the individual circumstance, but ultimately the goal is collective power.[00:33:30] 

[00:33:30] Maurice BP-Weeks: That’s beautiful. Um, so my last question for you, you know, I sometimes think of issues inside of the prison industrial complex as, as being, they’re just, they’re just really heavy. Like, um, it’s such a large issue in this country. I mean, we, we said earlier in this episode, there’s There’s like 2 million people incarcerated and 10 million arrests per year.

[00:33:58] And we see, [00:34:00] you know, increasing number of, of malpractice by, um, by police and, and prisons. Um, and I’m kind of wondering like what, you know, organizing is, is really a hope based discipline. And I’m, I’m wondering what is giving you hope recently, where are the, the areas that you see kind of the sunshine peeking through or.

[00:34:22] You wake up and you’re like, okay, we can keep moving towards this thing and this feels good. 

[00:34:28] Dr. Richelle Brooks: I think my hope comes [00:34:30] from seeing folks lives changed by the work that we’ve done. Someone that uses the Bell Debt tool calling us and saying, Hey, you know, 50, 000 of my Bell Debt is gone and I’m able to feed my family.

[00:34:44] I’m able to pay for child care. Yeah, these are actual phone calls that happen. Or I’ll have someone call me and say, I went to court today and my charges were dismissed, uh, because of some of the work that we did. [00:35:00] So my hope comes from the celebratory experiences that we, that our, our individual, the way that our individual lives are impacted.

[00:35:12] That’s where I get my hope and, you know, the other day I was doing an interview and one of the, the spokespeople asked my daughter. If she’s concerned about her future and, you know, with indebtedness, primarily around student loan debt. And she said, no, they were like, why aren’t you, [00:35:30] why aren’t you worried?

[00:35:31] And she’s like, well, all the work my mom is doing, there’s no way that we’re going to have to worry about that in the future. That’s 

[00:35:38] Maurice BP-Weeks: so incredible. Oh, that’s so incredible. 

[00:35:43] Dr. Richelle Brooks: And that’s, that’s, um, that keeps me going. It makes differences in people’s lives. You see the shifts, uh, in the conversations that we’re having, like California, having the conversations about cash bell in and of itself is a win, [00:36:00] right?

[00:36:00] We’re seeing these progressive movements in the right direction because people are advocating for what’s right. And because we’re organizing, it’s not easy. Um, you often organize hours upon end, um, without pay, um, without sleep. But You’re with folks that you love and you’re getting closer to freedom.

[00:36:22] You’re getting closer to liberation and it gives Obviously it gives hope to the younger generation to keep [00:36:30] fighting too. 

[00:36:31] Maurice BP-Weeks: Well Rochelle, I like your daughter I think you’re a superhero And I really appreciate you coming on and sharing some of your expertise on this on this issue And yeah, I’m leaving more more hopeful after that.

[00:36:44] So thank you very much, Dr. Rochelle Brooks from The Debt Collective. 

[00:36:48] Dr. Richelle Brooks: Thank you for having me. This was lovely. It’s always good to be able to tell a little bit about what we do. And if people need us, we’re here for you. Appreciate 

[00:36:57] it.[00:37:00] 

[00:37:04] Maurice BP-Weeks: So I’ve been studying prison industrial complex abolition for quite some time now. You know, people have different paths to it, and thinking about the economic impacts, the necessity of our system to keep people cycling through arrest and prison, was a major part of my path. Abolishing carceral debt is where my debt abolition and prison industrial complex abolition meet.

[00:37:28] In fact, they’re [00:37:30] kind of one and the same. It’s basically calling for a total rework of the system that we live in. It’s The dismantling of a political order that uses money and debt to subjugate a whole population. We’ll link some resources to abolition in the show notes, and I hope you can join me on that journey.

[00:37:49] Look, I think part of abolition is how you would want to be treated on your absolute worst day. I’ve had some really bad days, and luckily they didn’t involve me being arrested and put [00:38:00] into an endless cycle of debt. Let’s try and create a system together that makes sure, no matter what kind of day a person has, We’re not using their pain to make the economy go round and round.

[00:38:13] Sound on Tape: There has 

[00:38:13] come into being another kind of political prison. And I’m talking about all of the sisters and brothers who are victims of the system, who are easy targets of the 

[00:38:24] police, who 

[00:38:26] get railroaded through the courts into prison, uh, [00:38:30] who are there 

[00:38:30] only 

[00:38:30] because 

[00:38:31] they’re black.

[00:38:40] Maurice BP-Weeks: My thanks again to Dr. Rochelle Brooks from the Debt Collective for joining me this episode. Indebted is produced and published by Convergence, a magazine for radical insights. You can help support this show and others like it by becoming a Patreon member of Convergence for as low as 2 per month at patreon.

[00:38:56] com slash convergence mag. [00:39:00] You can find a direct link in the show notes. The show is produced by Josh Elstro. It’s written and hosted by me, Maurice BP Weeks. Until next time, let’s keep fighting for the world we all deserve.

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