Former imprisoned state senator Maselli co-writes book about new debtor's prison

Former imprisoned state senator Maselli co-writes book about new debtor's prison

LINCOLN – Though Paul Lonardo has written and collaborated on more than a dozen books, his latest is unlike anything the Lincoln resident, formerly of North Providence, has published to date.

“The New Debtors’s Prison” from Skyhorse Publishing is an exploration of the penal system, specifically those incarcerated for debt, through the lens of Rhode Island attorney and former Johnston State Sen. Christopher Maselli.

Maselli, who wrote the book with Lonardo, draws from his experience in the courtroom as a practicing attorney, as well as his two years spent behind bars in federal prison after he was convicted of fraud in 2010. The book blossomed from a collection of personal notes, books and newspaper clippings he collected while serving time.

Both Maselli and Lonardo described the subject matter of the nonfiction book as “eye-opening.” Together they researched the history of debtors’ prisons, which were formally abolished in the U.S. nearly two centuries ago.

“There is a new version of debtors’ prisons impacting both the working and middle class,” Lonardo said, where people are locked up for failing to pay legal debts. Twenty percent of inmates in America are serving time for financial reasons.

“There’s this circular hole people fall into,” Maselli said. If, for example, a working parent struggling to make ends meet is confronted with an unexpected traffic ticket “that could mean deciding between paying the ticket or the electric bill.”

Citing another example, Maselli spoke of a client who was working two jobs to pay the bills. The insurance had lapsed on his vehicle when he rear-ended someone on his way to the dealership to trade it in.

“Now he owes $1,800 in damages that he can’t afford, and his license is suspended until that’s paid. Without a reliable mass transit system, he continues to drive to work and he’s pulled over for driving on a suspended license. The first and second offenses are civil ... anything after that is criminal and comes with additional fines,” Maselli said.

“You see that circular thing happening. That’s the new-age debtors’ prison, so to speak,” he added. Ordinary working people can find themselves in these positions, Maselli said.

Lonardo said, “It’s a topic most people think is just for low-income people who are unable to pay a fine but this is affecting the middle class more than you think. A small amount of debt can spiral out of control if you get fined.”

While many of Lonardo’s books involve local people and events, “The New Debtors’ Prison” includes cases from around the country, with Maselli sharing details of his own incarceration throughout.

“I saw this issue in real life at work in the Rhode Island court system, but Rhode Island is a minute part of the problem compared to what’s happening nationwide,” Maselli said.

The book discusses the way cities and towns increasingly rely on revenues from red light and speed cameras to pad their budgets. Another chapter delves into the student loan crisis and the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, specifically how lying about one’s income, marriage status or other information on the FAFSA could result in a $20,000 fine and up to five years in jail.

Maselli said his own case was similar, where he “fudged the numbers” on a mortgage application to get qualified. “I had so many student loans, my debt-to-income ratio was so out-of-whack,” he said.

He learned a hard-and-fast lesson when he was sentenced to serve time in federal prison. “It didn’t matter if I was there for a few weeks or 27 months, I got the message,” he said.

Maselli was able to secure a second chance for himself when his law license was reinstated by the state Supreme Court in 2016. “I was lucky,” he said. “Not everyone in my position has an opportunity like I did. In my case the court system in Rhode Island is really sending a message that people make mistakes and do deserve second chances.”

He believes his case is a step in the right direction, but said there are reforms still needed in criminal justice in R.I. and beyond.

“We need to give inmates more than what they came in with,” he said. “Give them an education or teach them a trade. Without those things, they could have the best intentions in the world but end up going back to their old ways.”

Lonardo said, “It’s a topical subject with what’s going on, even in Washington, D.C., with prison reform. Supposedly these debtors’ prisons were done away with many years ago, but this does still creep up on people.”

Lonardo said he hopes people will heed some of the warnings presented in the book, which took roughly a year to research and write. “Hopefully you read about it here first,” he said, “... before you experience it personally.”

“I hope people see that things can happen to ordinary people,” Maselli said. “They are not bad people. They made a mistake. People are worthy of second chances and people can change.”

“The New Debtor's Prison” is available on Amazon and www.skyhorsepublishing.com .