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For many fathers in prison, child support becomes a crushing debt

In today’s edition of why we need prison abolition, the Marshall Project recently had an excellent (and terrifying) piece up at The Washington Post about child support policies that consider incarceration a form of “voluntary impoverishment” (…what?) Billing poor parents, mostly fathers, while they’re in prison is “like squeezing an empty bottle and hoping something comes out.” 

Of the 2.2 million people incarcerated in the United States, about half are parents, and at least 1 in 5 has a child support obligation. For most, the debt will keep piling up throughout their imprisonment: By law or by practice, child support agencies in much of the country consider incarceration a form of “voluntary impoverishment.” Parents like Harris, the logic goes, have only themselves to blame for not earning a living.

[...] For Earl Harris, the problem was keeping up. He had a job in prison, cleaning the kitchen, but it paid only $7.50 a month — well short of the $168 the state of Missouri was billing him.

“Didn’t they know I was in prison?” he asks. “Weren’t they the ones that put me in there?”

When he got out in 2001, the unpaid amount was listed on his credit report — and pursued by an agency with the power to garnish 65 percent of his wages, intercept his tax returns, freeze his bank account, suspend his driver’s license and, if he failed to pay, lock him up again.

By then, his debt had surged to more than $10,000.

Harris entered barbering school but soon returned to drug dealing and was thrown back into prison for nearly a decade. Meanwhile, his child-support debt swelled to more than $25,000.

The article goes to explain that this may be about to change: “The Obama administration has authorized a new set of regulations that would reclassify incarceration as ‘involuntary,’ giving parents the right to push the pause button on child support payments.” Those regulations are set to be implemented by states by 2017. Unsurprisingly, they are opposed by Congressional Republicans who would prefer policies that charge child-support costs that far exceed prisoner income, leave most overdue child support unpaid, and do little other than dig incarcerated people — often poor and black — deeper into debt.

Michelle Alexander’s comments on the piece on her Facebook page are more insightful than mine could possibly be so I’ll end with them here:

Locking people up for failing to pay thousands of dollars in child support debt when they are simply too poor to pay is just another means of criminalizing poverty. The practice is especially unconscionable when the child support debt piles up while the person is incarcerated and thus unable to work. [...] As the article points out, “research shows that the two most important factors in a former prisoner’s successful reentry into the community are employment and positive relationships with family. Both of these are hindered by the aggressive pursuit of child support arrears.” Indeed, if one were trying to design a system that would efficiently destroy families and communities while blaming them for their own plight, it would be difficult to improve on the systems that currently manage and control poor people and people of color today.

Header image credit: Washington Post

Mahroh is a community organizer and law student who believes in building a world where black and brown women and our communities are able to live free of violence. Prior to law school, Mahroh was the Executive Director of Know Your IX, a national survivor- and youth-led organization empowering students to end gender violence and a junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Her research addresses the ways militarization, racism, and sexual violence impact communities of color transnationally.

Mahroh is currently at Harvard Law School, organizing against state and gender-based violence.

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