Profit and Punishment: How America Criminalizes the Poor in the Name of Justice (Hardcover)

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In Profit and Punishment, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist exposes the tragedy of modern-day debtors prisons, and how they destroy the lives of poor Americans swept up in a system designed to penalize the most impoverished.

“Intimate, raw, and utterly scathing” — Heather Ann Thompson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Blood in the Water

“Crucial evidence that the justice system is broken and has to be fixed. Please read this book.” —James Patterson, #1 New York Times bestselling author

"His Pulitzer Prize winning series on debtors' prisons in Missouri made a serious difference in real people's lives and his book will be a must read for a nation seeking a bipartisan path forward on criminal justice reform."
Claire McCaskill, former US Senator and analyst for MSNBC

As a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Tony Messenger has spent years in county and municipal courthouses documenting how poor Americans are convicted of minor crimes and then saddled with exorbitant fines and fees. If they are unable to pay, they are often sent to prison, where they are then charged a pay-to-stay bill, in a cycle that soon creates a mountain of debt that can take years to pay off. These insidious penalties are used to raise money for broken local and state budgets, often overseen by for-profit companies, and it is one of the central issues of the criminal justice reform movement.

In the tradition of Evicted and The New Jim Crow, Messenger has written a call to arms, shining a light on a two-tiered system invisible to most Americans. He introduces readers to three single mothers caught up in this system: living in poverty in Missouri, Oklahoma, and South Carolina, whose lives are upended when minor offenses become monumental financial and personal catastrophes. As these women struggle to clear their debt and move on with their lives, readers meet the dogged civil rights advocates and lawmakers fighting by their side to create a more equitable and fair court of justice. In this remarkable feat of reporting, Tony Messenger exposes injustice that is agonizing and infuriating in its mundane cruelty, as he champions the rights and dignity of some of the most vulnerable Americans.

About the Author


Tony Messenger is the metro columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In 2019, Messenger won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary for his series of columns on debtors' prisons in Missouri. In 2016, Messenger was awarded a Missouri Honor Medal, the highest award bestowed by the University of Missouri's School of Journalism. That same year he won a National Headliner for editorial writing. In 2015, Messenger was a Pulitzer finalist for his series of editorials on Ferguson, and won the Sigma Delta Chi award for best editorials of the year, given by the Society of Professional Journalists. Messenger lives in Wildwood, MO with his wife and two children. He has four grown children and eight grandchildren. Profit and Punishment is his first book.

Praise For…


"A shocking account... In plainspoken and powerful language, Messenger exposes the unconscionable, unethical and utterly heartbreaking. Read these riveting accounts and be stirred to action!" —Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Pulitzer Prize Finalist, author of Race for Profit

"Tony Messenger's Pulitzer Prize-winning series on debtors' prisons in Missouri made a serious difference in real people's lives and his book will be a must read for a nation seeking a bipartisan path forward on criminal justice reform."—Claire McCaskill, former US Senator and analyst for MSNBC

"Messenger's sentences burn with moral urgency, as he tells the stories of people clamoring for a second chance, against a system designed to turn every mistake into permanent economic shackles. But Profit and Punishment also finds in their testimony a dogged spirit of resistance... shows us that we as a country can do so much better by each other." —Maurice Chammah, author of Let the Lord Sort Them: The Rise and Fall of the Death Penalty.

“An intimate, raw, and utterly scathing look at the ordinary and everyday ways in which America's criminal justice system has directly increased the poverty of the many, and dramatically increased the profits of the few, in recent years. All will have zero doubt after reading this devastating account of the full scale human rights crisis that has been wrought by these policies that they must act, immediately, to overhaul them."
—Heather Ann Thompson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Blood in the Water

"Rips the lid off of our nation’s modern-day debtors' prisons as Messenger illuminates the ways in which our courts abuse the poor for financial gain. His inspired use of narrative brings the tragedy to life as he tells the stories of the ill-fated individuals who can’t escape the court system’s tangled web." —Nancy Allen, New York Times bestselling author of Juror #3

“When Tony Messenger writes about social justice issues, he is relentless in his pursuit of truth, particularly when the victims of a broken criminal justice system are disproportionately people of color.”—DeRay McKesson, host of Pod Save the People and author of On the Other Side of Freedom

“Tony Messenger writes to an audience in America’s heartland, but when he examines issues of social justice, his voice deserves a national readership. His work shines a spotlight on injustices that never would have been illuminated if it were not for his dogged determination and exquisite prose. The Pulitzer committee recognized that, and readers of his book will, too.”—Shannon Watts, founder of Mom's Demand Action and author of Fight Like a Mother

“Tony Messenger tells the stories of lives destroyed at the junction of mass incarceration and fiscal conservatism. It is as shocking as anything I have read about the criminal injustice system in the United States of America.”—Walter Johnson, author of The Broken Heart of America



Product Details
ISBN: 9781250274649
ISBN-10: 1250274648
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication Date: December 7th, 2021
Pages: 272
Language: English