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The New Jim Crow

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A reminder that the incarceration system operates to ensure the long-term exploitation of prisoners, even when they leave prison. That the majority of them are people of color is no bug to the designers of the prison system.

The $31,690 Johnny Melton received to settle a lawsuit over his mother’s death was going to help him start life anew after prison.

But before he was released, after 15 months in prison for a drug conviction, the Illinois Department of Corrections sued Melton and won nearly $20,000 to cover the cost of his incarceration. When Melton was paroled earlier this year, he was forced to go to a homeless shelter, then was taken in by a cousin. He got food stamps. When he died in June, according to his family, he was destitute.

“He didn’t have a dime,” said one of Melton’s sisters, Denise Melton, of Chicago. “We had to scuffle up money to cremate him.”

The lawsuit against Melton was one of a small but growing number of cases the prisons department brings each year against inmates to recoup the cost of their imprisonment, an effort intended to help fund operations that makes convicted felons feel a financial pinch for their crimes — in addition to the time they do.

The lawsuits, in some cases, target convicted murderers or sex offenders serving lengthy prison terms. Some inmates will never get out; others will be released when they are elderly. But many of the lawsuits target less serious offenders who have earned or come into relatively modest sums of money, whether through an inheritance, a trust fund or, as in Melton’s case, the settlement of a wrongful death lawsuit.

In a few cases the lawsuits seem punitive, if not retaliatory, to inmates, and could have a chilling effect on the incarcerated asserting their constitutional rights. After one inmate received $50,000 to settle a lawsuit against the department for failure to properly treat his cancer, the department turned around and sued the inmate for nearly $175,000 — even though the department already had agreed in writing not to try to claw back the settlement money.

Officials acknowledged filing the lawsuit was a mistake and said that, as a rule, they do not try to punish inmates who file lawsuits.

This is pretty in-depth feature and well worth you reading the whole thing.

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