According to Mississippi Today interviews with dozens of former and current inmates, the agency doesn’t keep track of how much each person sentenced to the program earns and owes. It is difficult for them to determine how long they will need to work in low-wage jobs to be able to pay their bills. Mississippi bans workers from managing their own earnings, and they are not allowed to keep track of their debts. Most of the inmates we spoke to were unsure where their money went and whether it reached the victims of their crimes. According to data from Mississippi Today and The Marshall Project, the state doesn’t keep precise records about who is in the program at any particular time, how many judges send them there each year, or how long they stay. According to an indictment in February filed in Rankin County east of Jackson, a guard at a restitution center was able steal more than $1,000 from inmates’ paychecks in just four months. In November, the guard pleaded guilty and was placed on probation for five-years by a judge. She declined to comment through her lawyer. Officials from the corrections declined to comment on the restitution program. The department responded to our findings by stating that it follows the orders of judges. According to the statement, the agency provides documentation for program participants on their debt balance through receipts of payments and a monthly balance sheet. Robert Johnson, who was the former chief of the corrections department, stated that he did not know people were held in these centers until they make a certain amount of income, instead of being sentenced for a time. Johnson, who was the commissioner from 2000-2002 and is now the director of a probation-services firm, said that he was stunned by this. Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today. Report For America Mississippi has been trying to end the practice that imprisons people because they are poor, just like many other states. 2018 saw the Legislature pass a law that requires judges to find out if individuals are going to jail for failing to pay fees, fines or restitution. The new law requires judges to place time limits on certain sentences to restitution centres. But, this is rarely the case, according to our analysis. According to court records, only 15 of the 214 prisoners in the centers had been given time limits and the amount of money they needed. In a 2014 report from Mississippi’s legislative watchdog agency the restitution centres were under scrutiny. The primary focus was on how slow victims received their payments. At the time, victims were paid by local courts first. However, court rules from 2017 require that money earned by inmates goes to victims before it covers criminal penalties. The court does still take a cut of fees. The state provided $6.8 million for the operation of the restitution centres between 2016 and 2018. Inmates were paid $6.4 million during that period. According to data from Harrison County, on the Gulf Coast, more than a third owed the court their total debts years later. Lawyers, inmates, and some court staff claim that the state’s poor recordkeeping has kept people locked-up even though they have enough money to leave. Photo by Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today. Report For America. Justin Wetzel is the Harrison County court clerk. He said that he receives calls from inmates’ families about once per week asking why they aren’t being released. Wetzel said that “something seems fishy” and said that he cannot get answers from corrections. Frank Fairley, who pleaded guilty to 2012 to helping in the robbery at the Hilton Garden Inn Gulfport of a clerk hotel, said that this is what happened to him. After he had completed about half his five-year sentence, the state released Fairley from prison. However, he failed to make his court-ordered payment. He was sentenced to $2,237.50 by a Jackson judge in 2018. Fairley, unlike most other restitution center prisoners, was able to get a job at almost $14 an hour driving a truck at the chicken processing plant. He realized that he had enough money to get his freedom within a few weeks. He said that corrections officials would not let him go. Finally, he quit the job and turned himself in to the corrections officials for abandoning the program. He spent one month in prison. He was eventually convicted by a judge of having paid all his monies. He was free. Fairley admitted that he had overpaid his debt. He said, “I would have liked a $300 check.” But, he was so happy to be out, he said, “If they don’t send it, then I’m fine with that too.” This is part of an investigation published by The Marshall Project, a non-profit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal justice systems. Follow The Marshall Project on Facebook and Twitter, or sign up for their newsletter. The rest of the series can be found here. To support this important work, you can make a regular donation to the Spring Member Drive today.