For many people, the lingering impact of a stint in jail extends far beyond the prison gates. In many cases, the financial consequences of a conviction can damn a person to an eternal financial purgatory. In a new report, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles amningly map out how the criminal-justice system works to bury ostensibly “free” people under mountains of debt, forcing citizens who have already served their time in jail to continue laboring not for wages so much as for basic civil rights.
It’s not exactly a neo-gulag; think carceral capitalism. The research by the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, UCLA Labor Center, and A New Way of Life Reentry Project outlines how punitive structures within the civil- and criminal-justice systems work to tie punishment to poverty to unemployment:
First, probation and parole require participants to seek and maintain employment as part of a set of standard conditions.… Second, courts may demand that people work when they are too poor to pay criminal justice debts from the fines, fees, and restitution imposed by the criminal justice system.
That means that many probation and parole participants are being forced to work just to stay out of jail. A similar dynamic plays out when the criminal-justice and child-welfare systems intersect: According to the report, courts can “order parents that are too poor to pay child support to find and maintain jobs or face jail as a consequence.”
These extractive apparatuses have dominated cities across the country, and gained particular attention in Ferguson, Missouri, where the courts effectively sucked financing from residents who had been nabbed for minor offenses such as missing a hearing. To further tighten the debt trap, researchers note, “Criminal justice debt and child support obligations cannot be erased in bankruptcy, and those who can’t pay face incarceration.” (People with criminal records also face further employment barriers when background checks taint job applications with problematic rap sheets.)
The link between state oppression and labor markets doesn’t mean all work requirements are necessarily “incarceration by another name.” It does, however, raise the question of whether the purpose of parole is to shift punishment toward a more cost-effective, less restrictive form of supervision—as many prison reformers argue—or to keep workers on a leash for as long as possible.