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Eliza McSwain works the cash register at a McDonald’s restaurant in Brandon, Miss. She was one of several people hired by the local fast food franchise from the Mississippi Department of Corrections’ restitution center program.

How We Investigated Mississippi’s Modern-Day Debtors Prisons

A tip led us to a little-known program that affected hundreds of poor workers.

The tip we got at Mississippi Today seemed a little unlikely: a woman in state prison was also working at McDonald’s—and not voluntarily. But sure enough, we found Dixie D’Angelo, a woman with court-ordered debts of $5,000 because she damaged a friend’s car. She had been sentenced to something called a restitution center, where she worked four different restaurant jobs to try to earn enough to pay off her debts and get out of jail.

Two reporters, Anna Wolfe and Michelle Liu, ultimately found that hundreds of people were in similar situations because of the state’s little-known restitution center program. Basically, we discovered, Mississippi was running a modern-day debtors prison.

We met with inmates and their employers across Mississippi, beginning at fast food restaurants around Jackson, traveling to the Mississippi Delta and the Gulf Coast. We found people using court documents and a list of work-camp inmates that the corrections department later removed from its website.

We interviewed more than 50 current and former restitution center inmates and a dozen national experts. We filed 30 public records requests. Using more than 200 sentencing orders, we built a database detailing how judges ordered people to the centers and how much money they had to pay.

With the help of Andrew R. Calderón at The Marshall Project, we analyzed that material as well as other data we got from the state. We requested population reports from the Mississippi Department of Corrections, which tell us the inmate population in each restitution center at the beginning of each month. The reports also include information like the average number of inmates employed in a given month and how many absconded, and more.

While the corrections department and most judges we contacted denied repeated interview requests for this story, we relied on hundreds of pages of court documents, hearing transcripts and policy manuals to corroborate the inmates’ stories.

Anna Wolfe is an investigative reporter who writes about poverty and economic justice for Mississippi Today, an independent nonprofit newsroom.

Michelle Liu has covered criminal justice issues for Mississippi Today through the Report for America initiative since June 2018.