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Jails, poorhouses, and debtor's prisons

CJCJ staff writer Selena Teji recently posted a blog called "Overcrowded jails, the bail industry, and pretrial alternatives."  Among other things she notes that many are in jail "simply because they cannot afford to post bail." In short, it's a place for the poor.


A couple of years ago I posted an article called "From Poorhouses to Jails, Same Function, Different Time" I began by referring to a book by David Wagner called The Poorhouse: America's Forgotten Institution.  In his book one can find evidence of a direct chain connecting the modern jail with what were known variously as "poorhouses," "almshouses" and "houses of correction" dating back several centuries.


Here in the 21st century we find that during the course of a year, around 13 million people are arrested and taken to jail. The vast majority of those who end up in a local jail do not receive a "get out of jail free card" like you would in the famous game of Monopoly. Most have little or no capital with which to secure their release. An old saying applies here: "those without capital get punishment." The vast majority of defendants in criminal courts cannot afford an attorney -- they are labeled as "indigent" (synonyms include such terms as "poor," "impoverished," "destitute") -- in fact, as noted in a recent study, an estimated 80 to 90 percent of those charged with a crime cannot afford an attorney and thus are indigent. In short, jails are still "poorhouses."


Often these institutions were called "debtor's prisons." This practice began in the middle of the fourteenth century when London jails became used as a method to extract payment from those in debt. 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. 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.


Debtor's prisons seem to be making 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."

The above references are a few years old, yet a Google search for debtor's prisons shows several recent stories, such as one from Daily Finance just last month, the New York Times this past July and one from CBS Money Watch in April of this year.  Indeed, the "poorhouse" is with us and all you need to do is walk past your local jail.

Keywords: bail industry, jails, Randall Shelden

Posted in Blog, Social Justice

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