Alec Karakatsanis is the co-founder of Equal Justice Under Law, an organization that works to end the cash bail system in the United States and shut down “debtors’ prisons” that incarcerate poor people simply because they cannot pay fines. Karakatsanis talked to The Huffington Post as part of our ongoing series of stories about jail deaths across the country.
As told to Ryan J. Reilly.
“People are presumed innocent, and in many jails around the country, they’re not even allowed to see ― let alone touch ― their children, or their wives, or their husbands, or their parents. They’re just warehoused away there, many of them in solitary confinement, in utter filth without proper food and exercise and sunlight. Many of them are just there only because they cannot afford to make a payment.
They can’t even talk to their families because all of these private companies have gotten phone contracts with jails to make the cost of making a phone call to your child prohibitive for most inmates. So imagine being just merely accused of a crime, stuck in a cage because you can’t make a payment, and virtually cut off from all contact with the people that you love, in this very dangerous environment where you’re likely to get some sort of physical abuse or medical issue.
Our jails are places largely in the shadows where there’s not a lot of scrutiny about what is happening, and there’s a culture of indifference to the human beings who are there.
One of the things that is most despairing for people who are caught up in this system is the cyclical nature of it. It’s not just something that happens once and you can assure yourself it’s never going to happen again. For many of these people, this is the result of a constant cycle of being policed and caged and policed and caged, and for many of them, they can’t see a way out.
The notion that every time you leave your home, whether it’s to pick up your kids or go to work, you could be arrested, and the police can put metal chains on you and take you to this dungeon where you can’t get out unless you pay them. That fear ― when it happens two, three, four, five, six, seven times ― that you can never get out of that cycle leads a lot of people to feel real despair.
What’s so ironic is that a lot of these folks are placed in jail because they can’t make a payment. They’re so poor, they’re struggling, they’re working in low-income jobs in a lot of cases, and they’re kept in jail ― which in many cases causes them to lose their job ... Now all of a sudden, their life is thrown into crisis. They can’t get money for food or rent or for their children’s diapers or clothing or food. Being in jail for just a few days can throw someone’s life into disarray. In many cases they can lose stable housing ― and all of these things happen just by the mere accusation of a crime by a police officer, and because they can’t afford to pay the amount of money associated with that arrest.
Like a lot of things in our society, the more routine and the more common something becomes, the more normalized it becomes, and the more desensitized we become to how bad it is… It would be impossible to do certain jobs in our criminal legal system if you appreciated how horrific it is to cage someone...
People who work in the system become desensitized to how brutal it is to cage someone, and so our jails are places largely in the shadows where there’s not a lot of scrutiny about what is happening, and there’s a culture of indifference to human beings who are there... There’s absolutely no reason that these pretrial conditions have to be horrific; that’s just a policy choice that we’ve made for no reason. The way the system functions now is it punishes people before they’re ever convicted.”