It was early Christmas morning and the kids were poised to tear into their gifts.
I sat in my favorite chair, coffee in hand. It had a little extra shot of holiday cheer. Nat King Cole was singing in the background when the first “Merry Christmas” text popped up on my phone.
It wasn’t from one of my grown children in a faraway state — not my dad, nor any of my siblings.
No, the two-word holiday greeting came from Victoria Branson.
Just a couple of months earlier, the 48-year-old grandmother had been in a Missouri prison, facing a four-year sentence for the audacious crime of being too poor.
She’s in Desloge, Mo., now, living with her 15-year-old son, checking in with her parole officer, hoping never to go back to the prison she should not have been sent to in the first place.
“That was the most terrible place I’ve ever been in my life,” Branson says of the state women’s prison in Vandalia.
I wrote about Branson’s plight in August.
She had been hauled before St. Francois County Circuit Judge Sandra Martinez on a decade-old child support case that Branson thought was long ago resolved. At the time, nearly 15 years ago, she was behind a few hundred bucks on support for her then-teen son who had left for a few months to live with his father. The father later killed himself, and the son moved back with Branson. He’s 30 now and lives on his own. Over the years, the costs of the old child support combined with court costs climbed to more than $5,000.
Martinez revoked Branson’s probation on the case because those costs hadn’t been paid. Twice in the past couple of years, the Missouri Supreme Court had overturned similar sentences handed out by the judge because it’s unconstitutional to send poor people to jail simply because they can’t afford to pay fines and court fees.
“So, in this case we are left with a system in which all Missouri taxpayers have to pay for the salaries of judges, clerks, prosecutors, public defenders and probation officers to collect money from a grandmother on disability supporting her grandchildren in order to operate the St. Francois County jail,” the court wrote in overturning Martinez on a case similar to Branson’s. “The amount of resources devoted to this task is astonishing.”
The issue of rising court costs and its effect on poverty is a long-standing problem in American courts. In 2014, protests in Ferguson helped shine the light on that harsh reality in many urban municipalities in north St. Louis County. Poverty is poverty, whether it affects poor, black residents in big cities or poor white ones such as Branson in rural areas.
That’s why in March 2016, the U.S. Justice Department sent a letter of guidance to all judges and court clerks in the country, reminding them of constitutional protections that are as old as the nation.
In December, just a few days before Branson wished me a Merry Christmas, Attorney General Jeff Sessions revoked that guidance, part of President Donald Trump’s obsessive effort to erase the legacy of President Barack Obama.
Rescinding the letter doesn’t change the Constitution. It doesn’t suddenly make debtors prisons legal again. But it sends a message to judges such as Martinez that it’s OK to put people like Branson in prison just because they can.
While she was in Vandalia, Branson was “a pusher.”
She helped other prisoners who were in wheelchairs by volunteering to push them around the prison yard, to and from the infirmary, wherever they needed to go. A couple of months into her four-year sentence, not long after I wrote about her, she got called into the warden’s office.
“They called me in on the first of October and asked if I knew you,” Branson says.
Ten days later, she was a free woman, released on parole without even a hearing. “If you didn’t raise awareness, I’d still be in there,” she says.
Maybe. Or perhaps the Department of Corrections simply realized a nonviolent prisoner such as Branson simply didn’t belong in the state’s overcrowded prison system. Either way, they cut her loose.
On the last day of December, Branson sent me another text.
“Happy New Year’s,” it said.
Branson’s year isn’t starting out so great. She was working for a while as a medical technician at a nursing home, but in December she got laid off. Now she’s looking for work so she can pay down the $3,400 she still owes the court. A lot of doors get slammed in her face. “All they hear is the word prison,” she says. “I’m labeled for life now.”
If she can’t pay down her debt, she’s afraid she’ll end up before Martinez again.
“She can’t keep doing this to people,” Branson says of the judge. “This cannot continue.”
The attorney general of the United States suggests it can.