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How jails extort the poor

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    One summer afternoon in 2013,
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    D.C. police detained,
    questioned and searched
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    a man who appeared suspicious
    and potentially dangerous.
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    This wasn't what I was wearing
    the day of the detention,
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    to be fair,
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    but I have a picture of that as well.
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    I know it's very frightening --
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    try to remain calm.
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    (Laughter)
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    At this time,
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    I was interning at the Public
    Defender Service in Washington D.C.,
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    and I was visiting a police
    station for work.
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    I was on my way out,
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    and before I could make it to my car,
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    two police cars pulled up
    to block my exit,
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    and an officer approached me from behind.
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    He told me to stop,
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    take my backpack off
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    and put my hands on the police car
    parked next to us.
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    About a dozen officers
    then gathered near us.
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    All of them had handguns,
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    some had assault rifles.
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    They rifled through my backpack,
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    they patted me down,
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    they took pictures of me
    spread on the police car
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    and they laughed.
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    And as all this was happening --
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    as I was on the police car trying
    to ignore the shaking in my legs,
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    trying to think clearly
    about what I should do --
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    something stuck out to me as odd.
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    When I look at myself in this photo,
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    if I were to describe myself,
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    I think I'd say something like,
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    "19-year-old Indian male,
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    bright T-shirt,
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    wearing glasses."
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    But they weren't including any
    of these details into their police radios
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    as they described me.
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    They kept saying, "Middle Eastern
    male with a backpack.
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    Middle Eastern male with a backpack."
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    And this description carried on
    into their police reports.
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    I never expected to be described
    by my own government in these terms:
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    "lurking ...
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    nefarious ...
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    terrorist."
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    And the detention dragged on like this.
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    They sent dogs trained to smell explosives
    to sweep the area I'd been in.
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    They called the federal government
    to see if I was on any watch lists.
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    They sent a couple of detectives
    to cross-examine me on why,
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    if I claimed I had nothing to hide,
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    I wouldn't consent to a search of my car.
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    And I could see they
    weren't happy with me,
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    but I felt I had no way of knowing
    what they'd want to do next.
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    At one point, the officer
    who patted me down
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    scanned the side of the police station
    to see where the security camera was
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    to see how much of this
    was being recorded.
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    And when he did that,
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    it really sank in how completely
    I was at their mercy.
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    I think we're all normalized
    from a young age
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    to the idea of police officers
    and arrests and handcuffs,
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    so it's easy to forget how demeaning
    and [coercive] a thing it is
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    to seize control over
    another person's body.
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    I know it sounds like
    the point of my story
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    is how badly treated I was
    because of my race --
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    and yes, I don't think I would've been
    detained if I were white --
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    but actually what I have in mind
    today is something else.
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    What I have in mind is how
    much worse things might've been
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    if I weren't affluent.
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    I mean, they thought I might be
    trying to plant an explosive,
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    and they investigated that possibility
    for an hour-and-a-half,
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    but I was never put in handcuffs,
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    I was never taken to a jail cell.
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    I think if I were from
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    one of Washington D.C.'s
    poor communities of color,
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    and they thought I was
    endangering officers' lives,
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    things might've ended differently.
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    And in fact,
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    in our system,
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    I think it's better
    to be an affluent person
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    suspected of trying
    to blow up a police station
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    than it is to be a poor person who's
    suspected of much, much less than this.
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    I want to give you an example
    from my current work.
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    Right now, I'm working for
    a civil rights organization in D.C.
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    called Equal Justice Under Law.
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    Let me start by asking you all a question.
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    How many of you have ever gotten
    a parking ticket in your life?
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    Raise your hand.
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    Yeah, so have I.
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    And when I had to pay it,
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    it felt annoying and it felt bad,
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    but I paid it and I moved on.
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    I'm guessing most of you have paid
    your tickets as well.
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    But what would happen if you couldn't
    afford the amount on the ticket
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    and your family doesn't have
    the money either?
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    What happens then?
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    Well, one thing that's not supposed
    to happen under the law
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    is you're not supposed to be
    arrested and jailed
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    simply because you can't afford to pay.
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    That's illegal under federal law,
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    but that's what local govenerments
    across the country are doing
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    to people who are poor.
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    And so many of our lawsuits
    at Equal Justice Under Law
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    target these modern-day debtor's prisons.
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    One of our cases is against
    Ferguson, Missouri,
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    and I know when I say Ferguson,
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    many of you will think of police violence,
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    but today I want to talk about
    a different aspect
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    of the relationship between
    the police force and their citizens.
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    Ferguson was issuing an average
    of over two arrest warrants per person,
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    per year,
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    mostly for unpaid debt for the courts.
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    When I imagine what that would feel like
    if every time I left my house
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    there was a chance a police officer
    would run my license plate,
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    see a warrant for unpaid debt,
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    seize my body they way the did in DC
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    and then take me to a jail cell,
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    I feel a little sick.
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    I've met many of the people in Ferguson
    who have experienced this,
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    and I've heard some of their stories.
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    In Ferguson's jail,
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    in each small cell there's
    a bunk bed and a toilet,
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    but they pack four people into each cell.
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    So there'd be two people on the bunks
    and two people on the floor,
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    one with nowhere to go except
    right next to the filthy toilet
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    which was never cleaned.
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    In fact the whole cell was never cleaned,
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    so the floor and the walls were lined
    with blood and mucus.
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    No water to drink
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    except coming out of the spigot
    connected to the toilet.
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    The water looked and tasted dirty,
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    there was never enough food,
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    never any showers.
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    Women menstruating without
    any hygiene products --
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    no medical attention whatsoever.
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    When I asked a woman
    about medical attention,
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    she laughed,
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    and she said, "Oh, no no.
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    The only attention you get
    from the guards in there is sexual."
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    So, they'd take the debtors
    to this place and they'd say,
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    "We're not letting you leave until
    you make a payment on your debt."
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    And if you could --
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    if you could call a family member who
    could somehow come up with some money,
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    then maybe you were out.
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    If it was enough money,
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    you were out.
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    But if it wasn't,
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    then you'd stay there for days or weeks,
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    and every day the guards
    would come down to the cells
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    and haggle with the debtors about
    the price of release that day.
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    You'd stay until at some point the jail
    would be booked to capacity,
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    and they'd want to book someone new in,
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    and at that point they'd think,
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    OK, it's unlikely this person
    can come up with the money,
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    it's more likely this new person will,
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    you're out, they're in,
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    and the machine kept moving like that.
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    I met a man who,
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    nine years ago,
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    was arrested for panhandling
    in a Walgreens.
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    He couldn't afford his fines
    and his court fees from that case.
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    When he was young he survived a house fire
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    only because he jumped out
    a third-story window to escape.
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    But that fall left him
    with damage to his brain
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    and several parts of this body,
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    including his leg.
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    So he can't work,
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    and he relies on social security
    payments to survive.
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    When I met him in his apartment,
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    he had nothing of value there --
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    not even food in his fridge.
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    He was chronically hungry.
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    He had nothing of value in his apartment
    except a small piece of cardboard
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    on which he'd written
    the names of children.
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    He cherished this a lot,
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    he was happy to show it to me.
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    But he can't pay his fines and fees
    because he has nothing to give.
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    In the last nine years,
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    he's been arrested 13 times,
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    and jailed for 130 days
    on that panhandling case.
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    One of those stretches lasted 45 days.
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    Just imagine spending from right now
    until sometime in June
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    in the place that I described to you
    a few moments ago.
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    He told me about all the suicide attempts
    he's seen in Ferguson's jail.
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    About the time a man found
    a way to hang himself
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    out of reach of the other inmates,
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    so all they could do was yell
    and yell and yell,
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    trying to get the guard's attention
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    so they could come down and cut him down.
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    And he told me that it took the guards
    over five minutes to respond,
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    and when they came,
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    they man was unconcious,
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    so they called the paramedics
    and the paramedics went to the cell.
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    They said, "He'll be OK,"
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    so they just left him there on the floor.
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    I heard many stories like this
    and they shouldn't have surprised me,
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    because suicide is the single leading
    cause of death in our local jails.
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    This is related to the lack
    of mental healthcare in our jails.
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    I met a woman,
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    a single mother of three,
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    making seven dollars an hour.
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    She relies on food stamps to feed
    herself and her children.
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    About a decade ago,
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    she got a couple of traffic tickets
    and a minor theft charge,
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    and she can't afford her fines
    and fees on those cases.
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    Since then, she's been jailed
    about 10 times on those cases,
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    but she has schizophrenia
    and bipolar disorder,
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    and she needs medication every day.
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    She doesn't have access to those
    medications in Ferguson's jail
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    because no one has access
    to their medications.
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    As she told me about what it was like
    to spend two weeks in a cage,
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    hallucinating people and shadows
    and hearing voices,
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    begging for the medication
    that would make it all stop,
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    only to be ignored.
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    And this isn't anomalous either:
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    thirty percent of women in our local jails
    have serious mental health needs
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    just like hers,
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    but only one in six receive mental
    health care while in jail.
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    And so, I heard all these stories
    about this grotesque dungeon
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    that Ferguson was operating
    for its debtors,
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    and when it came time for me to actually
    see it and to go visit Ferguson's jail,
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    I'm not sure what I was expecting to see,
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    but I wasn't expecting this.
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    It's an ordinary governement building,
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    it could be a Post office or a school.
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    It reminded me that these
    illegal extortion schemes
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    aren't being run somewhere in the shadows,
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    they're being run out in the open
    by our public officials.
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    They're a matter of public policy.
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    And this reminded me
    that poverty jailing in general,
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    even outside the debtors prison context,
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    plays a very visible and central role
    in our justice system.
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    What I have in mind is our policy of bail.
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    In our system,
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    whether you're detained or free,
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    pending trial,
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    is not a matter of how dangerous you are
    or how much of a flight risk you pose,
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    it's a matter of whether you can afford
    to post your bail amount.
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    So Bill Cosby,
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    whose bail was set a one million dollars,
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    immediately writes the check
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    and doesn't spend a second in a jail cell.
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    But Sandra Bland,
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    who died in jail,
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    was only there because her family
    was unable to come up with 500 dollars.
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    In fact,
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    there are half a million Sandra Blands
    across the country.
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    500,000 people who are in jail right now
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    only because they can't
    afford their bail amount.
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    We're told that our jails
    are places for criminals,
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    but statistically that's not the case:
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    three out of every five people
    in jail right now
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    are there pre-trial.
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    They haven't been convicted of any crime,
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    they haven't plead guilty to any offense.
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    Right here in San Francisco,
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    85 percent of the inmates
    in our jail in San Francisco
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    are pre-trial detainees.
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    This means San Francisco is spending
    something like 80 million dollars
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    every year
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    to fund pre-trial detention.
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    Many of these people who are in jail
    only because they can't post bail
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    are facing allegations to minor
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    that the amount of time it would take
    for them to sit waiting for trial
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    is longer than the sentence they
    would receive if convicted,
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    which means they're guaranteed
    to get out faster
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    if they just plead guilty.
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    So now the choice is,
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    should I stay here in this horrible place,
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    away from my family
    and my dependents,
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    almost guaranteed to lose my job,
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    and then fight charges,
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    or should I just plead guilty
    to whatever the prosecutor wants
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    and get out?
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    And at this point
    they're pre-trial detainees,
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    not criminals.
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    But once they take that plea deal,
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    we'll call them criminals,
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    even though an affluent person would
    never have been in this situation,
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    because an affluent person would
    have simply been bailed out.
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    At this point you might be wondering,
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    this guy's in the inspiration section,
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    what is he doing --
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    (Laughter)
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    This is extremely depressing.
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    I want my money back.
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    (Laughter)
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    But in actuality,
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    I find talking about jailing much less
    depressing than the alternative,
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    because I think if we don't
    talk about these issues
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    and collectively change how
    we think about jailing,
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    at the end of all of our lives,
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    we'll still have jails full of poor
    people who don't belong there.
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    That really is depressing to me.
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    But what's exciting to me is the thought
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    that these stories can moves us to think
    about jailing in different terms.
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    Not in sterile policy terms
    like "mass incarceration,
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    or sentencing of non-violent offenders,"
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    but in human terms.
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    When we put a human being in a cage
    for days, or weeks, or months
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    or even years,
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    what are we doing
    to that person's mind and body?
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    Under what conditions are we
    really willing to do that?
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    And so if starting with a few hundred
    of us in this room
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    we can commit to thinking about
    jailing in this different light,
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    if we can undo that normalization
    I was referring to earlier.
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    So if I leave you with anything today,
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    I hope it's with the thought
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    that if want anything
    to fundamentally change --
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    not just to reform our policies
    on bail and fines and fees --
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    but also to make sure that whatever
    new policies replace those
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    don't punish the poor and the margenalized
    in their own new way.
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    If we want that kind of change,
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    then this shift in thinking
    is required of each of us.
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    Thank you.
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    (Applause)
Title:
How jails extort the poor
Speaker:
Salil Dudani
Description:

more » « less
Video Language:
English
Team:
closed TED
Project:
TEDTalks
Duration:
12:43
Brian Greene edited English subtitles for How jails extort the poor
Brian Greene edited English subtitles for How jails extort the poor
Brian Greene edited English subtitles for How jails extort the poor
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Camille Martínez edited English subtitles for How jails extort the poor
Camille Martínez edited English subtitles for How jails extort the poor
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Leslie Gauthier edited English subtitles for How jails extort the poor
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