An incredibly American (or social-bureaucratic Russian-novel-nightmarish, can’t decide) story in the Chicago Tribune begins:

The $31,690 Johnny Melton received to settle a lawsuit over his mother’s death was going to help him start life anew after prison.

But before he was released, after 15 months in prison for a drug conviction, the Illinois Department of Corrections sued Melton and won nearly $20,000 to cover the cost of his incarceration. When Melton was paroled earlier this year, he was forced to go to a homeless shelter, then was taken in by a cousin. He got food stamps. When he died in June, according to his family, he was destitute.

It is totally legal, apparently, in “at least” 43 states, for corrections departments to sue released prisoners for the cost of their imprisonment. In most cases, these lawsuits fall on prisoners who have come into some sort of inheritance. (Surely they couldn’t use that to get back on their feet post-incarceration in a respectable fashion or anything.) In a few cases, the lawsuits are laid out punitively:

After one inmate received $50,000 to settle a lawsuit against the department for failure to properly treat his cancer, the department turned around and sued the inmate for nearly $175,000 — even though the department already had agreed in writing not to try to claw back the settlement money.

Illinois has sued 11 former inmates in this fashion in 2015.

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This comes about a month after the New York Times story that opened with an Alabama judge ordering poor people in his courtroom to—if they couldn’t pay their fines—give their blood instead.

The dozens of offenders who showed up that day, old and young, filed out of the Perry County courthouse and waited their turn at a mobile blood bank parked in the street. They were told to bring a receipt to the clerk showing they had given a pint of blood, and in return they would receive a $100 credit toward their fines — and be allowed to go free.

Good. Great. Another wonderful day in the greatest country on earth.


Image via AP

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Contact the author at jia@jezebel.com.