You think “enemy combatants” are the only people who can be denied access to an attorney and thrown in prison without having been convicted of any crime? Wrong-o. In Delta County, Michigan, USA, they’re doing it to homeless single mothers.
I allude to the egregious tale of Edwina Nowlin, who earlier this month was jailed for being poor. Behold a summary of the case, which I filched from the ACLU’s press release and legal brief. Recall that I am a spinster aunt, not a lawyer, so if my taking poetic license with some of the finer legal points chaps your hide, kindly kiss my entire monkey butt.
It’s like this. Nowlin’s teenage son is in juvenile detention. The court, skipping the nuisance of assessing Nowlin’s financial situation beforehand, has ordered her to cough up $104 per month to reimburse the state for imprisoning her kid. But Nowlin hasn’t got a pot to piss in. She lost her house after being laid off. She’s scrapping by on occasional part-time gigs and crashing on friends’ couches. Like all Americans, she’s already $17,000 in debt, and whatever wages she earns are being garnished. All this, while trying to support another teenage son.
When she can’t produce the dough, the judge holds Nowlin in contempt. Sentence: 30 days.
The 30-day sentence is fixed, by the way. Even if she had paid the $104 on Day 1, the judgment would have kept Nowlin imprisoned for the full month. Thus does Nowlin’s civil contempt sentence morph seamlessly and unconstitutionally into a criminal one. At which juncture Nowlin requests the court-appointed lawyer to which all persons accused of crimes are entitled. But apparently the judge has never heard of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel. Nowlin is dee-nied.
A few days later, they let her out of jail long enough to pick up a paycheck from one of her odd jobs. The check is for $178.53, more than enough to cover her son’s bill at juvy. Things are looking up. But wait! The Delta County Sheriff makes Nowlin sign the check over to the jail to cover her own “room and board”! Plus 22 bucks for a drug test and booking fee!
To recap: Nowlin’s got to pay $104 a month for her son’s imprisonment, but since she’s in jail for being poor she couldn’t earn the money even if she had a job, which she doesn’t, so next month she’ll be in contempt again, beginning the cycle anew. The situation is ludicrous. It’s as though a civil rights-era black-and-white courtroom drama crash-landed into a Dickens novel.* A white-haired, pink-faced judge in a pale linen suit, a sheriff in Ray-Bans and beer-gut, one child jailed, a second left motherless, a beleaguered pauper doomed to languish in debtor’s prison with no hope of release, the untenable and insane condition that a destitute person must finance her own incarceration.
I’m a spinster aunt, not a mentalist, so I will never know precisely what caused this judge’s justice lobes to malfunction to such an astonishing degree, but it would not be pushing the limits of reason too far to speculate that a lifelong immersion in unexamined patriarchal privilege has caused a toxic buildup of the chemical compound assholamine. Studies conducted at the Twisty Institute for the Study of Lobal Instability have shown that this compound is found exclusively in the lobes of people who have power over other people. Assholamine produces quite the buzz.
In any event, there can be little doubt that this Voice of Authority, drawing on his** professional familiarity with the Global Accords Governing the Fair Use of Women, seeks, with his ruling, to appease the gods/ restore the natural order/ satisfy public demand for the state control of the sex class. He punishes Nowlin for daring to exist in a condition of poverty while demonstrating, through the son in juvy, an unconscionable inadequacy as a mother.
It blows all available lobes in rapid succession to contemplate that people in positions of power are capable of justifying this kind of bogus shit, but you see it over and over again: Americans hate poor people, especially if those poor people are single women with kids. Impoverished single women with kids in juvy are a special kind of abomination. That’s your patriarchy at work.
UPDATE: Happily I am informed that the ACLU got Nowlin sprung yesterday. But damn, somebody needs to get that judge off the bench and into some sort of grim state institution for the incarceration of persons too mean to roam free.
* This post at 2 Political Junkies also makes the observation that Nowlin’s situation is Dickensian. I read that post before I wrote mine, so it is possible that I cribbed the allusion, although I didn’t realize it at the time. Which I reveal now in the interest of transparency in the blogular process, attribution, and good manners.
** Yes, I am perfectly aware that patriarchy can similarly infect women judges, but we’ll just assume that this one’s a dude so I don’t have to keep typing “he/she.”