People Harmed by Montgomery Debtors’ Prison Seek a Final Shot at Justice

Contact for comments:
Claudia Wilner, NCLEJ Director of Litigation and Advocacy |

New York, NY – For years, the City of Montgomery and a private contractor, Judicial Correction Services (JCS) operated a debtors’ prison in Alabama. A case challenging this debtor’s prison, McCullough v. City of Montgomery, is again before the Eleventh Circuit to determine whether the case will become a class action. 

“This is our clients’ last chance for justice. A class action is the only shot most people harmed by Montgomery’s debtors’ prison scheme have to be compensated for the unjust fees and jail time they suffered,” said Claudia Wilner, Director of Litigation and Advocacy, National Center for Law and Economic Justice. “The jailing of people in Alabama for inability to pay fees is one of many widespread practices targeting low-income Black communities.” 

While in operation, Montgomery’s debtor’s prison charged fines from traffic tickets and other minor misdemeanors and ordered hundreds of people who could not afford to pay to “probation” with JCS. JCS made over $15.5 million in profits from a $40 monthly fee it charged each probationer. Probationers who couldn’t pay to buy their freedom were routinely jailed in a process that violated constitutional and state laws requiring courts to determine if a person has the means to pay the fines. 

Plaintiffs in McCullough v. City of Montgomery, Angela McCullough, Levon Agee, Hassam Caldwell, Algia Edwards, Marquita Johnson, Kenny Jones, and Christopher Mooney are represented by NCLEJ with co-counsel Hank Sanders and Faya Toure of Chesnut Sanders & Sanders, LLC, Martha Morgan, and Dentons. The class action appeal was filed jointly with a related case, Carter v. City of Montgomery, where plaintiffs are represented by the Public Justice Center, the Evans Law Firm, and the Terrell Marshall Law Group. PLLC. 

“People were taken away from their families and their jobs and put in jails where they were unable to work, to prove for their loved ones or to pay the fines. They were imprisoned solely for traffic fines. It was a destructive cycle that, by design, made it impossible for the plaintiffs to pay the fines and get out of jail and directly infringed on these people’s constitutional rights,” said Faya Rose Toure, counsel for plaintiffs. 

“We will move forward expeditiously to ensure these individuals’ rights are protected and this systematic practice of jailing people for outstanding traffic fines will end. Because they were unable to pay their traffic fines, they were imprisoned. This must end, and we will continue our work to ensure it does,” said attorney Martha Morgan. 

Two amicus briefs support the McCullough Plaintiffs at the Eleventh Circuit. Of the many errors made by the district court, an especially egregious one was denying one plaintiff with an intellectual disability the opportunity to serve as a class representative. The Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program filed a brief urging the Court to overturn this discriminatory and harmful ruling. A group of law professors and public interest law organizations, represented by Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP filed a second amicus in support of class certification. 

Debtors prison practices are widespread not only in Alabama but also in other states around the country. Fines for low-level traffic violations disproportionately harm low-income people who cannot afford to pay them. And incarceration is used unlawfully to punish people unable to pay, fueling a cycle of economic hardship.