Nearly five years ago, Nikki Petree accidentally bounced a check for $28.93. Judge Milas “Butch” Hale ― the man behind a so-called “debtors’ prison” in Sherwood, Arkansas ― sentenced her to jail last month, even after she paid hundreds of dollars in court fines and had been arrested in connection with the case at least seven times. Petree, who is now unemployed and taking care of her father, says she was never asked whether she had the financial means to afford the thousands of dollars of fees the court wanted to collect in connection with that single bounced check. She is a plaintiff in a federal class action lawsuit filed last week by the Arkansas Civil Liberties Union and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Petree, 40, spoke with The Huffington Post on Friday, the day after she was released after 35 days in county jail. Her story, which follows, has been edited for length and clarity.
I was living in Little Rock, and I was working at Embassy Suites, the big hotel in Little Rock. I had my paycheck set up on direct deposit. I had never had direct deposit before, so I didn’t know that most employers don’t direct deposit your last paycheck, you have to manually pick it up yourself. I was in the transition of moving home; it’s about an hour drive from where I was staying in Little Rock. I had written about five checks prior to my last paycheck, thinking my paycheck would be there before those checks were there. I came to find out I had to manually pick up my paycheck, and I was in the transition of moving. I took care of four out of five of those checks.
The last check that we’re talking about, it just kind of got away from me. I didn’t know that my check had not deposited when I had written the check. It’s such a simple mistake, really.
I moved back home, and I started working at the Waffle House. I was living at a hotel right across the road from the Waffle House so I could walk back and forth to work. I was making about $800 a month, and my rent was $165 a week, so we were living off of about $150 a month, and there was just no way I could figure out how to pay it. I started getting sick ― I’ve got some health issues ― and I was in and out of the hospital a little bit.
I think I’ve been to jail probably six, seven times over the same check. Every time I go to jail, they’d let me out immediately for $100. They’d turn around and add $600 or $700 more to my bond. I couldn’t afford to pay. I didn’t know what to do.
It got to the point where I couldn’t go nowhere. I’d have to look over my shoulder all the time, just worried that I was going to end up in jail over this.
Over the last two or three years, I’ve been taking care of my dad, he’s got a lot of health issues. So he’s been helping me financially, but nowhere near an amount that I could pay what it’s escalated to.
I just got out of jail yesterday. I spent 35 days in there.
Every time I went to court, we stood in line, we got our papers at the end of the line, we stood before him. Every time I went before him, they added $600, $700 to my fine.
This last time I went to court, he said, “How much money can you pay today?” I started to explain to him I’ve been in and out of the hospital two or three times in the past year. I offered community service, I offered weekends in jail, but before I could even get those two sentences out of my mouth, he sentenced me to 90 days in county jail, and he didn’t want to hear nothing from me. He said, “I don’t want to hear that.” He said, “You’re going to do a 90-day flat jail sentence” and pushed me on down the line. I was asking him, “Can I do weekends? Can I do service? Can I do ankle monitoring, anything?” He said, “No, ma’am.” I was just in shock, because I did not see it coming.
“They pin you in a corner, almost, especially for a person like me who has limited means.”
When I first got to county jail, I was being held in the lockdown unit where they hold all the serious people, all the mental health patients. You stay locked down 23 hours out of 24 hours a day. You get out for an hour, you take a shower, use your phone, and you step outside for a minute. Then you get locked back down and you’re in a cell with another person. It’s kind of set up like a small prison.
Then they moved me to the trustee pod, they made me a trustee, and put me in the laundry department. I stayed in my cell, I didn’t cause no problems, and just started reading books. The food was terrible.
They pin you in a corner, almost, especially for a person like me who has limited means. They let me out for $100, and then tack $700 more dollars onto the fine I already can’t afford to pay? They cornered me, and there was no way out from underneath it. I felt overwhelmed and hopeless, and that’s why I started missing court dates.
As of right now, I still owe money. I still owe like $1,300. I’ve probably paid them $600, $700 over the timeframe. For a $28 hot check.
They would tack on more time, more money, and then I’d have to be arrested or picked up wherever I got pulled over or whatever happened in front of family, friends, people, for the world to see. That’s embarrassment. I was afraid to go to town, to go to Walmart or something, afraid I would go to jail in front of everyone I know, or my children. I was almost ready for them to hold me in jail until it had a zero balance, that’s the only way I could see paying it off was with my time.
I can’t even begin to tell you the number of times I chose not to go somewhere and I chose not to go because I just had a gut feeling. I know $100 ain’t much money, but for me it’s a lot to come up with every time you turn around. My kids have paid that two or three times in bail.
There’s no way out, I don’t see no way out. It sucks, pardon my language.
I was scared to go to court. I didn’t even see a reason to go to court a couple times because I knew I couldn’t pay it, I knew they were going to add more to it, I knew they were going to have another warrant.
I just hope I can get this behind me. The only thing I want is to be able to not have to look over my shoulder when I go out. I don’t want to have to carry this around no more. It’s really been a burden.