The New Poorhouse: Poverty Wrangling, Predatory Justice, and Resurgence of Modern “Debtors’ Prisons”.

Tauheeda Yasin

Major Professor: Roger N Lancaster, PhD, Cultural Studies Program

Committee Members: Angela Hattery, Janine Wedel

Online Location,
November 17, 2020, 02:00 PM to 04:00 PM


The rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement in 2014 and the Department of Justice’s investigation into policing practices in Ferguson, Missouri, showed that acrimonious relations between city residents and police were due in part to excessive and frivolous traffic ticketing aimed at increasing the City’s budget rather than improving public safety. These were not aberrant practices. Almost a third of U.S. jurisdictions engage in similar tactics, piling on fines, fees, and penalties, resulting in what many have called a resurgence of modern “debtors’ prisons.” Large numbers of mostly poor residents face incarceration not because they have committed violent crimes but because they cannot afford their encounters with the criminal and sometimes civil legal system. 

This dissertation provides a new genealogy of the American prison system, distinct from the much heralded “new Jim Crow” thesis: It centers on poverty as a key mechanism of mass incarceration. It traces what I call ‘predatory justice processes’ from their historical roots in the poorhouse/workhouse system to the present-day criminal justice system. Through up-close analysis of key sites, I argue for an analysis of the deep social and cultural technologies that have survived from the historical institutions of the poorhouse/workhouse. Opening up this line of inquiry into the role of class and poverty through these institutions offers new insights into the way the criminal legal system works in the modern era, both managing and producing poverty. I use the term “poverty wrangling” to describe interconnected social and cultural mechanisms that include the levying of “user pays” costs, functional cyclical debt, ostracization, class fossilization, and labor extraction. 

I postulate that the current and ongoing expansion of poverty wrangling is due to an obsolete funding infrastructure for the criminal legal system, and I offer policy suggestions to decrease adverse outcomes. Through five case studies, I demonstrate that technologies of the poorhouse/workhouse have survived, even revivified, in the neoliberal era—but I also show that deep reforms are possible. Dissecting neoliberal financialization and increased private-public partnerships, I discuss the St. Louis Workhouse in Missouri (which is still operating), Angola Prison in Louisiana, and the New Orleans Parish courthouse. I also examine the issue of state-level fines/fees and humanitarian reforms in the context of neoliberal financialization in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. I conclude by examining recent practices in the Netherlands. Could the Dutch model provide a blueprint for system reform in the US?