Genocidal Realities


County Jails—Debtors’ Prisons, Torture Chambers, and Death Camps

February 23, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper |


In speaking to the situation facing Black and Latino people in the U.S.—mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline, the criminalization and demonization of a whole generation of youth, the overt or just-below-the-surface racism prevalent in society, etc.—Carl Dix of the Revolutionary Communist Party has said what is taking place is a slow genocide that could easily become a fast genocide. This regular feature highlights aspects of this slow genocide.

City and county jails—a stop on the school-to-prison pipeline

Black people are locked up in jails at almost four times the rate of white people in the United States. In some places, it’s even worse. In New York City, Blacks are jailed at nearly 12 times the rate of whites, while Latinos get locked up in NYC jails at more than five times the rate of whites.

City and county jails are an entry point to mass incarceration. There are 3,000 of these lockups, and they hold more than 730,000 prisoners on any given day according to a “Incarceration’s Front Door: The Misuse of Jails in America,” a February 2015 report by the Vera Institute of Justice. According to official statistics, violent and property crime rates are way down—just over half what they were about 20 years ago, but annual jail admissions have nearly doubled (from six million in 1983 to 11.7 million in 2013). In the same 30 years, the average length of stay in jail has gone up from 14 days to 23 days.

In the words of the Vera Institute report, “[E]ven a short stay in jail can have dire consequences. Research has shown that spending as few as two days in jail can increase the likelihood of a sentence of incarceration and the harshness of that sentence, reduce economic viability, promote future criminal behavior, and worsen the health of the largely low-risk defendants who enter them—making jail a gateway to deeper and more lasting involvement in the criminal justice system....”

Think about what that means. You’re on your way to work and get stopped for a traffic violation, the cops find a warrant because you couldn’t afford to pay the fine on your last ticket. They take you to jail, and even if you get out the next day you lose your job. Or, you keep your job for the moment, but you have to appear in court so often that your boss says you are undependable and you get fired. Now you really can’t pay the fines. You go to jail for that. Then, what happens to your loved ones?

Debtors’ prison in Ferguson and other Missouri towns

I was in the driver seat of the car. I was just sitting in the backyard. I had on my nightgown and everything. And they came up in the backyard. And as I was walking into the house, he was just like, “Freeze, stop.” And he asked for my name. You know, I gave him my name. And then they immediately took me to jail in my nightgown, did not have no time—they did not give me any time to put on no clothes. And then, once I was transferred—once I went to Jennings and then transferred to Ferguson, then they then let my mother bring me some clothes.


That was the only time that I had been sitting in a nonmoving vehicle and I was arrested. The other times, I was the passenger in the car. So, yeah, it’s been like only a couple times where I have actually been driving, and they pulled me over and was like, “Oh, you have an outstanding warrant for driving with a suspended license,” or whatever the case may be. But any other time, I have been the passenger in a car, or the car was not moving at all.

—a woman in Ferguson, Missouri, describing her ordeals with the system to Democracy Now!

ArchCity Defenders, a non-profit legal clinic in St. Louis, reported in their recent white paper that 86 percent of traffic stops in Ferguson involved a Black driver, but Blacks are 67 percent of the population. After being stopped, Blacks in Ferguson are almost twice as likely to be searched and twice as likely to be arrested. In Florissant, another town in St. Louis County, 57 percent of the people stopped by police are Black even though they are 25 percent of the population.

Michael-John Voss, a lawyer with ArchCity Defenders, told Democracy Now! February 10:

So, what we have in St. Louis, in the municipalities in St. Louis County, is a modern debtors’ prison.... [I]ndividuals who are African-American are disproportionately targeted by police in the municipalities, as well as they are also exploited because of their financial inability to pay certain fines and costs related to that traffic stop, that traffic violation. And so, what happens is, an individual then is forced to pay an exorbitant amount of money relative to the charge that they’re facing. And then they are, if they don’t have that ability to pay, they’re actually—no inquiry is made as to that ability or not, and a warrant is issued for their arrest, and then they become incarcerated. It’s sometimes for days, for weeks, without any looking into their financial ability to pay, and actually without even having a clear sense of whether or not they have any sort of specific amount that they would be able to pay to get out of jail.

A lawsuit against the City of Ferguson brought by attorneys with ArchCity Defenders, Equal Justice Under Law, and Saint Louis University School of Law on behalf of several residents of Ferguson says:

The City’s modern debtors’ prison scheme has been increasingly profitable to the City of Ferguson, earning it millions of dollars over the past several years. It has also devastated the City’s poor, trapping them for years in a cycle of increased fees, debts, extortion, and cruel jailings. The families of indigent people borrow money to buy their loved ones out of jail at rates set arbitrarily by jail officials, only for them later to owe more money to the City of Ferguson from increased fees and surcharges. Thousands of people like the Plaintiffs take money from their disability checks or sacrifice money that is desperately needed by their families for food, diapers, clothing, rent, and utilities to pay ever increasing court fines, fees, costs, and surcharges. They are told by City officials that, if they do not pay, they will be thrown in jail. The cycle repeats itself, month after month, for years.


At least four suicides and suicide attempts by people held because they were too poor to pay for their release have occurred in local municipal jails just in the past five months.

Read the Democracy Now! interview with Michael-John Voss and two of the plaintiffs and the complaint in the Ferguson lawsuit. (There’s also a lawsuit against the City of Jennings, another St. Louis County town). The details will enrage you.

Beaten to death in a Houston jail

Fourteen people died in Houston’s Harris County Jail in 2014. So far this year, there have been three deaths in that jail. Here is the story of one of them.

“Stop fucking beating me! What the fuck did I do? Get off me! Please, please don’t do this!’

“Get off my back, bro. I’m not resisting. Right now, bro, I’m gonna pass out”

“Oh shit! This is wrong!” (screams)

These were among the last words of Kenneth Christopher Lucas, a 38-year-old Black man who was murdered in a cell of the Harris County Jail in Houston on February 17, 2014. A horrifying video shows a squad of five jail guards, outfitted head to toe with weaponry and body armor, marching like robot killers down jailhouse corridors and then charging into Lucas’ cell.

The pigs pin Kenneth Lucas to his cot and press, then cuff, his hands and feet high on his back. They swarm all over him, one sitting on his back to press both his feet and hands down. They scream repeatedly for him to “stop resisting”, although Lucas was lying face down, with one heavy pig on him and others pressing him further down, including one pig who was squeezing his neck. They stayed this way for about 20 minutes, for much of which Lucas was motionless and silent. A lawyer hired by his family said: “It appeared to me that the man who was sitting on his legs, was sitting on the legs, ultimately, of a dead man and still trying to restrain a dead man.”

Lucas was dragged off the gurney and out of his cell, face down. The video shows a jail nurse twice giving Lucas shots described as a “sedative” by his killers. Pigs continued to sit on him and press down on him the entire time, even after it was evident he was not moving.

It is not clear at what moment Kenneth Lucas actually died. What is clear is that he lay, motionless and unresponsive, for an extended time, his head pressed down, a cop sitting on him and surrounded by other cops, his arms and feet forced into contorting, painful positions, before any of these pigs gave some thought to the fact that he may be dead. Kenneth Lucas was later reportedly placed in a “restraint chair,” then taken to a hospital and pronounced dead.

One year later, on February 11, 2015, a Harris County grand jury cleared the five murdering pigs and three other jail employees who observed the terrifying assault that took Kenneth Lucas’ life. Sheriff Adrian Garcia said his department’s “team members followed policy and procedure. The investigation looked for evidence of excessive force and none was found.”

Kenneth Lucas was in jail because he was supposedly a little late in returning his children to his ex-wife while they were with him on a visitation. He was swarmed by the riot squad because they claimed he had removed a smoke detector and intended to somehow use it as a weapon. After his death, Garcia’s office moved to charge Lucas with criminal mischief for his alleged tampering with the smoke detector. No evidence of this was ever produced by the cops. Now his murderers walk free.

Anyone with a shred of humanity could see this video and be shocked at the callous indifference and contempt for the life of Kenneth Lucas these cops have. It takes utterly heartless killers to pile on someone the way the Harris County Sheriffs did on Kenneth Lucas on that horrible night; to surround, suffocate, and squeeze the life out of someone the way they strangled it out of him. It takes an utterly illegitimate legal system to look at the video of Lucas’ agony and death and determine that no crime was committed. It takes a brazen, cold blooded pig like Adrian Garcia to release a video showing cops under his command brutally murdering Kenneth Lucas, then boast (and threaten) after the grand jury cleared them that “no one did anything criminally.”

Every action Garcia and his pigs took leading up to, during, and in the aftermath of the murder of Kenneth Christopher Lucas was criminal. They did it in service of a criminal system, a system that has the relentless oppression of Black people woven deeply into every part of its fabric.

Lucas’ widow, Amber, said that “somebody needs to be held accountable for these actions.” There needs to be justice for Kenneth Lucas, and the pigs who killed him must be charged with murder! Police brutality and the police murder of Black and Latino people must STOP!

(A protest demanding Justice for Kenneth Lucas was planned for Sunday, February 22.)

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