MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (WKRN) – A federal judge issued an order Friday that allowed 13 inmates to be released from the Rutherford County jail. According to officials, the inmates being released had misdemeanor charges and were jailed because they could not afford to pay their court fees.
Some of the charges included driving on a suspended or revoked license.
“We wanted to do our due diligence to make sure they were released as soon as possible,” Sheriff Robert Arnold said.
Officials reported Sheriff Arnold informed the inmates they were being released, explaining they were being freed on the local order signed by judges Ben McFarlin and Barry Tidwell, who were implementing the federal judge’s order.
Federal Judge Kevin Sharp ruled that the inmates Constitutional rights were being violated by staying in jail. His ruling was in response to a lawsuit filed by “Equal Justice Under Law,” which is a non-profit civil rights organization that provides pro-bono legal services.
The lawsuit claimed the private probation company contracted by Rutherford County unfairly jails poor people who can’t pay their court costs. The lawsuit says, the company, Pathways Community Corrections (formerly Providence Community Corrections), tries to “extract as much money as possible from misdemeanor probationers through a pattern of illegal and shocking behavior.”
Judge Sharp agreed saying, Pathways Community Corrections violated the inmates constitutional rights.
“Once you’re in the system you’ll always be in the system with PCC,” said former inmate Heather Keller. She got a misdemeanor for driving on a suspended license but was thrown in jail because she couldn’t pay her court fees then her bond.
“It manipulates poor people and keeps you in the system,” she said.
MORE: General Session order
Keller thought she would be spending Christmas in the Rutherford County Jail but was elated to find out she’d be free and home for the holidays.
“My favorite part is just being with my family and seeing smiles on faces on Christmas,” Keller said. “Giving those hugs, those Christmas pj’s everyone wears every Christmas. That’s all that mattered to me.”
In a statement, PCC said “We are disappointed in the court’s ruling, but will continue to comply with all state and federal laws while reviewing our legal options.”
The inmates were released without having to pay a bond but still must answer to the pending charges in General Sessions Court.
“Make sure you go to court,” Sheriff Arnold told the newly-freed inmates.
If inmates fail to show up, documents will be obtained to pick them up and hold them in jail until court, officials noted.