Poverty Keeps Woman Jailed

19th September, 2006
Atlanta Joural Constitution
Carlos Campos

Day job off-site not enough for expenses and $705 fine.

All Ora Lee Hurley has to do to get out of prison is pay a $705 fine, according to her attorney.

But every month, she pays the Georgia Department of Corrections $600 for room and board and spends $76 a month for a MARTA card, laundry and some meals. As a result, Hurley has stayed locked up more than eight months past her original 120-day sentence, according to a lawsuit filed Monday by the Southern Center for Human Rights seeking her release.

This is another debtor's prison case," said Sarah Geraghty, a Southern Center lawyer. "This is a situation where if this woman was able to write a check for the amount of the fine, she would be out of there. And because she can't, she's still in custody. It's as simple as that."

Hurley is an inmate held at the Gateway Diversion Center in Atlanta. She leaves the center for work five days a week at the K&K Soul Food restaurant on Donald L. Hollowell Parkway, earning $6.50 an hour.

After taxes, she nets about $700 a month. Room and board at the diversion center is $600 a month. She also pays $52 for a MARTA card, $4 for laundry and $20 for meals every month. She has earned more than $7,000 while at the diversion center, according to the lawsuit.

"Despite diligently working at a restaurant for nearly a year, turning her check over to the [Georgia Department of Corrections] and fulfilling all of the other requirements imposed by the diversion center, Ms. Hurley is still in custody," the lawsuit, filed in Fulton County Superior Court, reads.

"She is being held at the diversion center because of her poverty."

In the lawsuit, the Southern Center for Human Rights cites cases that prohibit the imprisonment of people whose poverty make it impossible to pay a fine. The center is hoping the prison system will contact the judge to alert them to Hurley's predicament, Geraghty said.

The Department of Corrections, as a matter of policy, does not comment on lawsuits.

To be certain, Hurley, 45, has contributed to her own problems.

In 1990, she pleaded guilty to possession of cocaine and marijuana in Sumter County, according to the lawsuit. She was sentenced to probation and a $750 fine. She paid $45 of her fine and failed to report for probation, so a warrant for her arrest was issued in February 1991.

More than 14 years later, on July 12, 2005, she was arrested in Americus for failure to report to probation for the 1990 charge, failure to pay $705 of the fine and possession of a small amount of cocaine. A judge revoked her probation and sent her to prison for a minimum of 120 days. He also ordered that she be held until her fine was paid in full.

Hurley does not work on Mondays and was at the diversion center, where she could not immediately be reached for comment.

Geraghty said her client takes part in Narcotics Anonymous classes and community service projects.

Keeping Hurley locked up costs taxpayers about $15,000 a year, Geraghty noted.

"The diversion center is keeping her in there at great expense to the state for no reason other than this fine," she said.

To read the Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus for Ora Lee Hurley, click here.