Skip to main content

Debtor's prisons alive and well

As I have written before jails have been largely reserved for the poor and at one time in history words like jails and poorhouses (along with workhouses and prisons) were used interchangeably.

During the fourteenth century London jails became used as a method to extract payment from those in debt - hence the term debtors’ prison. Even though most that ended up in jail because of this could not pay their debts - since the means to do so were taken away by the mere fact of being in jail - the actual function of the jail in this case was more as a threat than anything else. Some debtors selected to remain in jail until their death, since this would thereby cancel their debt and save their families from being charged. Although the Magna Carta (1215) said that “a man’s body could not be taken for the failure to pay a debt,” several laws were subsequently passed that made it easy to jail a man who was in debt. By the middle of the 17th century an estimated 10,000 were in prison because of debts.

The debtors in England could be locked up indefinitely. Horror stories of the treatment of people in these prisons began to leak to the outside world and by the middle of the 19th century some progress began to be made, sparked no doubt by the attention given to the problem by Charles Dickens in his famous novels David Copperfield and The Pickwick Papers. Some debtors were locked up for as many as 30 years for failure to pay their debts! Some debtors selected to remain in jail until their death, since this would thereby cancel their debt and save their families from being charged.

About two-thirds of the Europeans who came to the American colonies were debtors. Some colonies were, basically, debtors’ asylums. By the seventeen-sixties, sympathy for debtors had attached itself to the patriot cause. The American Revolution, some historians have argued, was itself a form of debt relief. In 1787, just before the Constitution was drafted, New Yorkers formed the Society for the Relief of Distressed Debtors. They launched an investigation and found that, of 1,162 debtors committed to debtors’ prison in New York City in 1787 and 1788, 716 of them owed under twenty shillings.

Debtor’s prisons have made a comeback during the current economic downtown. Several news reports confirm this. For instance, an editorial in the New York Times in April of 2009, called “The New Debtors’ Prisons,” reports on a case in Michigan where a woman whose son was in a detention center was ordered to pay the cost of his incarceration ($104 a month). She could not afford to pay this amount and so the court sent her to jail. The Times noted that the ACLU obtained her release after she spent 28 days behind bars. The ACLU reported that growing numbers are suffering such a fate. The Times also noted that the practice is occurring in Georgia and in Gulfport, Mississippi, until recently the police regularly did sweeps of the city’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, identified people with unpaid fines, and put them in jail. Defendants who could not pay were forced to remain there until they “sat off” their fines. The city ended the practice after it was sued.”

In another report a woman in Indiana a woman was sentenced a 30-day jail term for missing payments on a debt of $110. Barbara Ehrenreich (in an article appropriately titled “Is It Now a Crime to Be Poor?”) reports that in Texas “people who can’t afford to pay their traffic fines may be made to ‘sit out their tickets’ in jail.” The St. Petersburg Times reported that: “In a little-noticed trend blamed on the state's hard economic times, several courts in Florida have resurrected the de facto debtor's prison — having thousands of Floridians jailed for failing to pay assessed court fees and fines.” They reference a study by the Brennan Center at New York University School of Law reported that: "In Leon County's Collection Court, defendants who fail to pay their court-ordered costs and fines — often hundreds of dollars — are notified to appear at Collections Court and later arrested if they don't show. In the 12 months studied, there were 838 arrests for not appearing in court or failing to pay what was owed. Most people spent hours in jail, but some were held for a week or more.” Although technically it is unconstitutional for throwing people in jail for failure to pay their debts, “Florida officials get around this by claiming the defendants are going to jail not for their debts but for violating a court order.”

As you can see these incidents I reported on about three years ago. However, the problem persists, as reported by Steve Fraser in Tom Dispatch. The headline just before the article was “Another Day Older and Deeper in Debt.” This reminds me of an old song by Tennessee Ernie Ford called “Sixteen Tons.” The song deals with what was a common practice in many 19th century factories where workers lived and worked under the harsh rule of the owners who extracted money from their paychecks to pay for room and board, food (purchased at the “company store”) and other essentials and in many cases the amount of money extracted was more than their pay. Hence the debt of the workers increased with each paycheck. One line in the song is “I own my soul to the company store.”

Jason Zweig of the Wall Street Journal wrote back on August 28 that “We came to attention with a jolt when we read a clutch of recent articles claiming that debtors’ prisons are being revived inMissouriAlabamaIllinois and other states.” In Missouri, for instance, the St. Louis Post Dispatch reported that “The Bill of Rights in the Missouri constitution declares that “no person shall be imprisoned for debt, except for nonpayment of fines and penalties imposed by law.” Still, people do go to jail over private debt. It's a regular occurrence in metro St. Louis, on both sides of the Mississippi River.” The practice is very common as more than a third of all states allow for the jailing of borrowers who can't or won't pay, according to another story in the Wall Street Journal.

Keywords: economy, jails, prisons, Randall Shelden

Posted in Blog, Social Justice

California Stentencing Institute screenshot

California Sentencing
Institute (CASI)

Explore how California’s 58 counties send their residents to correctional institutions with interactive maps, charts, and downloadable data.

Connect with us

      YouTube

Contribute to CJCJ

Make a difference to youth and adults trying to get their lives back on track.

Join our mailing list

Get regular updates and news delivered to your inbox. We won’t share your information with anyone else.