In September, an Alabama judge was recorded giving a mandate to the offenders assembled before him, all of whom owed money for fees stemming from their crimes. They could pay up, they could go to jail, or they could give a pint of their blood.
The circuit court judge was Marvin Wiggins (above right), who has served in the state since 1999. He was recorded by Carl Crocker, one of the offenders, who passed the tape to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has since filed an ethics complaint against Wiggins, and to the New York Times.
Crocker’s recording, which includes both Wiggins’ speech and an interaction with the worker who drew his blood, is below, via the SPLC. “Good morning ladies and gentlemen,” Wiggins can be heard saying on the tape. “There’s a blood drive outside, and if you don’t have any money and don’t want to go to jail, as an option to pay it, you can give blood today. If you do not have any money, go out there and give blood and bring in a receipt indicating that you did give blood. Consider that a discount, rather than putting you in jail, if you do not have any money.”
The exchange of blood for reduced fines or jail time is all but unheard of, but the demanding of money from low-level offenders is commonplace—especially in Alabama. Last year, Sarah Stillman of the New Yorker thoroughly documented the phenomenon, focusing particularly on an Alabama woman named Harriet Cleveland, who spent most of her income on fines related to traffic tickets in order to avoid going to jail. (Stillman’s piece is mostly about for-profit probation companies, but the choice presented to offenders—give us your money or face imprisonment—is the same.)
According to the Times and the SPLC, the people in the court the day the recording was made were told that giving a pint of blood would equate to an $100 payment on their debts, but several of them did not in fact receive that rebate. This year, LifeSouth Community Blood Centers, the blood bank employed by the court that day, lost a multi-million dollar suit for allegedly selling HIV-positive blood to a local hospital.
LifeSouth ultimately renounced the blood, money, or prison arrangement, telling the Times that the employee who set it up had “acted improperly.” The blood bank has reportedly discarded “nearly all” of the units it collected from the court.