Kaepernick’s Protest and A Hugely Addressable Issue: US Debtor’s Prisons

Kumar Thangudu

September 24, 2016

tldr: There are highly addressable issues that would move the needle for the Black Lives Matter movement. I outline one here: Debtor Prisons.

The American Football Star Who Protested Racial Injustice
Colin Kaepernick recently kneeled at the national anthem to raise awareness of social injustice toward black people in the USA and at large.  He’s a National Football League star in the USA.

Our Current Point in History and News Cycles

Right now, the USA is going through a time where we’re extremely concerned with social justice and race, specifically as it relates to black people. Have a look through Blavity and observe their meteoric rise through internet search rankings. The content about social and judicial injustice is ripe and on everyone’s mind in the USA.

Can Colin’s Action as a Celebrity Move the Needle on the Issues that Matter?

But alas, I digress. Back to Colin…..

It’s hard to clarify whether or not Colin Kaepernick’s actions actually make a relevant difference to social/racial injustice.

I’m not necessarily sure this type of action has the strong impact that would drive a meaningful systemic change. As a growth marketer and engineer, I’m always concerned with how to make a protest or fundraiser extremely high ROI.

A Side Story About Effective High ROI Protest:
One of my favorite protestors is @sinak, he’s the reason you can unlock your cell phone from carrier to carrier in the USA without paying fees. He used his tech skills to drive over 100,000 petition sign ups and change US Laws around telecom companies.

Focus and Sequence matter. He identified the pressure points and applied pressure appropriately to move the needle for 300M Americans.

Read his story here: https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2014/08/15/heres-how-cell-phone-unlocking-became-legal

As an engineer, I always want to see how the levers in any system move, shake, and resonate to achieve the desired effect.

Moving the needle in a significant way on issues of social justice usually requires more tactical sophistication than simply kneeling at the anthem and making a donation to a non-profit. But Kudos to Colin for raising awareness and getting more people to think about the issues and ask questions.

What Kind of Things Would Advance Society Toward More Equitable Justice?

I spent some time thinking about activities that are high ROI and would be more likely to move the needle on social justice. I immediately thought of  Debtors Prisons.



Nearly two centuries ago, the United States formally abolished the incarceration of people who failed to pay off debts. Yet, recent years have witnessed the rise of modern-day debtors’ prisons—the arrest and jailing of poor people for failure to pay legal debts they can never hope to afford, through criminal justice procedures that violate their most basic rights.

State and local courts have increasingly attempted to supplement their funding by charging fees to people convicted of crimes, including fees for public defenders, prosecutors, court administration, jail operation, and probation supervision. And in the face of mounting budget deficits at the state and local level, courts across the country have used aggressive tactics to collect these unpaid fines and fees, including for traffic offenses and other low-level offenses. These courts have ordered the arrest and jailing of people who fall behind on their payments, without affording any hearings to determine an individual’s ability to pay or offering alternatives to payment such as community service.

In response, since 2009, the ACLU and ACLU affiliates across the country have been exposing and challenging modern-day debtors’ prisons, and urging governments and courts to pursue more rational and equitable approaches to criminal justice debt.

Debtors’ prisons impose devastating human costs. They lead to coercive debt collection, forcing poor people to forgo the basic necessities of life in order to avoid arrest and jailing. Debtors’ prisons waste taxpayer money and resources by jailing people who may never be able to pay their debts. This imposes direct costs on the government and further destabilizes the lives of poor people struggling to pay their debts and leave the criminal justice system behind. And most troubling, debtors’ prisons create a racially-skewed, two-tiered system of justice in which the poor receive harsher, longer punishments for committing the same crimes as the rich, simply because they are poor.

Ultimately, debtors’ prisons are not only unfair and insensible, they are also illegal. Imprisoning someone because she cannot afford to pay court-imposed fines or fees violates the Fourteenth Amendment promises of due process and equal protection under the law.

Samuel Brooke- Modern day hero and high ROI social justice warrior.

Debtors Prisons may be the single most addressable lowest hanging fruit of the social inequalities in our justice system today that can be solved within 12-24 months of decisive action/protest/and coordination.

Samuel Brooke: Enter Modern Day Hero
I say 12-24 months because that’s about how long it took Samuel Brooke filed lawsuits against all the private probation companies in Alabama and basically ended the practice in the state. He created a domino effect and municipalities started parting ways with all the private collections and corrections companies. Samuel Brooke is basically the equivalent of Batman.

Debtors prisons, filled with poor people of multiple races, are predominantly black.

Debtors prisons and our system for them in the States is totally ungepatched, messed up, adulterated, and corrupt. If we’re concerned about the judicial system or social justice as it stands today, a great starting point is debtors prisons.

Currently, we have 9 states in the USA that will jail you for failing to pay legal fines. I’m not even talking about legal fines for violent crimes, we’re talking about things like traffic violations and not painting your roof. In 9 states, the inability to pay for violations like these, means an arrest warrant and you going to jail.


The States where people can be jailed for inability to pay fines can occur: New Hampshire, Washington, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, Ohio, Michigan, and Missouri.

We should lobby tactically for an end to privately controlled municipal courts. Part of me wonders if this can be done by the boycotting and coercion of businesses that fund local/state representatives.

Each of these 9 states will jail people for failing to pay legal fines. Traffic violations and quality of life ordinances are causing poor black people in the States to be indentured into a life of paying off the judicial system for freedom.

If you have 15 minutes, and care about these issues, please have a quick read through of this paper: http://03a5010.netsolhost.com/WordPress/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/ArchCity-Defenders-Municipal-Courts-Whitepaper.pdf

It describes in detail some of the issues at hand.

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