Where is the Outrage for Jeffrey Pendleton? – posted 4/10/2016 and published in the Concord Monitor on 4/15/2015
This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on April 15, 2016 under the title “Why did Jeffrey Pendleton die in jail?
Over the last couple years, these names have come into our collective lives: Sandra Bland, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, There are quite a few others who experienced the same fate I am not naming, All were African-American and all died in police custody or at the hands of the police in circumstances that could best be described as questionable.
The deaths contributed to the creation of the national movement known as Black Lives Matter. The people who died lived in places all over the United States. None, however, were from New Hampshire – until now.
Now we have the little known, terrible story of a New Hampshire man, Jeffrey Pendleton, which has received scant local media attention. Pendleton’s story is New Hampshire’s version of Sandra Bland, the Black woman who was pulled over by a policeman in Texas for a lane change and who inexplicably died in jail a few days later. Like Bland, Pendleton was wrongly jailed and he died mysteriously alone in his jail cell.
The question has to be asked: where is the outrage? Why so little reaction to Pendleton’s death?
On March 13, Pendleton, a 26 year old, homeless, African-American man from Nashua was found dead in a jail cell at Valley Street Jail in Manchester. Pendleton had been in jail for five days when he died. He had been arrested on March 8 on a misdemeanor charge of marijuana possession. The Nashua District Court had set Pendleton’s bail at $100 cash, an amount he could not afford to pay. As a result, he went to jail.
No one seems to have any explanation for why he died. State and prison officials have had precious little to say. A Union Leader article quotes a Nashua police captain who says the Nashua police did everything correctly in the case.
Dr. Jenny Duval, deputy chief medical examiner for New Hampshire, performed an autopsy and said from her examination there was no evidence of any natural disease or physical trauma. The exam found no needle marks. Dr. Duval looked into Pendleton’s medical history and she said that he had appeared to be in good health.
Dr. Duval ordered additional tests and hoped that test results will determine the cause and manner of death.
While for me the Pendleton case prompts many reactions, I would begin by asking: why was he in jail? And why would an apparently healthy young man just die?
The jailing of Pendleton for failing to pay $100 bail on the pot charge is all too typical of the callous and uncaring way poor people are treated in New Hampshire. No way would most people be going to jail for that. They would come up with $100. Pendleton was jailed for being too poor to pay $100. Why is the state using such a harsh penalty, jail time, for such a minimal charge? The cost of incarceration, housing and feeding, so exceeds the charged offense.
When people talk about the criminalization of poverty, this is a good example. Pendleton was not a danger or a flight risk. Those are the reasons typically invoked for bail. I would also point out that pot is now legal in multiple states and when our state decides to enter the 21st century, it will be legal here. Everyone who is honest knows it is only a matter of time until pot will be legal in New Hampshire. New Hampshire remains the only state in New England that has not decriminalized marijuana possession.
It is both sad and wrong that Pendleton was jailed for a non-violent activity that would not have been punished at all in multiple jurisdictions.
One prominent New Hampshire defense attorney told me that he thought if Pendleton had not died he would have served 30 days. Then, when he appeared in court, he would have been released on time served and the case would have gone away.
Poor people so don’t count. Money-based bail regularly means that poor defendants are punished before they get their day in court. Probably poor people end up doing more time than if they had a court hearing and were convicted immediately.
The day after Jeffrey Pendleton died, the U.S. Justice Department released a letter to state chief justices and court administrators around the country suggesting they change their practices on fees and fines. The letter explicitly stated:
“Courts must not employ bail or bond practices that cause indigent defendants to remain incarcerated solely because they cannot afford to pay for their release.”
The letter came a day too late for Jeffrey Pendleton. How does the state plan to make amends to a dead man? I don’t see anybody jumping up to take responsibility.
Ever since the events in Ferguson Missouri, awareness has increased about the broader problem that many courts in America have been imposing exorbitant fees and fines on people who have committed relatively petty offenses. It is and remains modern-day debtors’ prison.
Too many cities and towns are relying on court fines and fees to pay down municipal debt. In a report released by the White House’s Council of Economic Advisors on Fees, Fines, and Bail, the authors note the increasing municipal reliance on these fines in America. The report states that in 1986, 12% of those incarcerated nationally were also fined. In 2004, the number had climbed to 37%.
Prior to his death, Jeffrey Pendleton was not some marginal, unknown homeless person. He had been a plaintiff in two lawsuits brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Hampshire. In the first case in March 2015 the court forced the town of Hudson to pay damages for the unconstitutional and illegal way they treated people who were peaceful panhandlers. In the second case, Pendleton spent 33 days in jail for walking in a park adjacent to the Nashua Public Library. The police charged him with criminal trespassing for walking through the park after he allegedly violated a verbal “no trespass” order. Nashua had to pay Pendleton and his attorneys for violation of his constitutional rights.
At this point, it is impossible to know if Pendleton’s activism played any role in what happened to him. I would hope that a thorough and fair investigation will get to the bottom of Pendleton’s tragic death. It is hard to fathom how and why a 26 year old spontaneously dies if that is what happened..
The New York Times reported that Pendleton had arrived in Nashua in 2009. He had worked low wage jobs in fast food restaurants. After a divorce in 2013, he became homeless and he started sleeping in the woods. He spent the winter of 2013-14 outside in a tent.
Pendleton worked at a Burger King in Nashua. In the press, a co-worker was quoted saying he made $8.50 an hour at most. That money is a little above New Hampshire’s paltry minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, far and away the lowest in New England. The money Pendleton made was not enough for any kind of apartment and it was apparently not enough to pay bail.
In February, Pendleton had participated in the Fight for $15 campaign which advocates for a higher minimum wage. He had demonstrated outside the Burger King where he worked. Maybe if Pendleton had been making a higher wage none of these events would have happened.
In an article that appeared in the Huffington Post, Attorney Gilles Bissonnette, the legal director of the ACLU of New Hampshire and Pendleton’s lawyer, described Pendleton as a “really sweet” and “kind” person whose troubles with the law were primarily a result of his poverty. Attorney Bissonnette also said the following:
“He got involved in these cases not because he thought he would obtain some sort of financial windfall but because he believed these cases could bring relief to other poor people who were struggling to get by and who were having interactions with law enforcement. He cared about how the cases that we were handling could potentially change police practices in the future.”
I must say I remain puzzled by how little coverage Pendleton’s death has received in New Hampshire media since March 13. Most of the stories that have been done come from outside news outlets like the New York Times and the Guardian. I did hear one story on New Hampshire Public Radio. When I have asked friends and acquaintances about Pendleton’s death, they have invariably not heard about it.
There have been a lot of stories about bobcats and also about the St. Paul’s preppy and the tragedy of his temporary detour from Harvard but almost nothing about a dead young black man. Based on the coverage, maybe black lives don’t matter.