Debtors' prisons make an American comeback

Alain Sherter of CBS MoneyWatch and the AP report on the disturbing resurgence of debtor's prisons in America. Though it is technically no longer legal to jail people for failure to pay their debts, the debt-collection industry has figured out how to game the courts to create a series of jail-able offenses related to nonpayment. These are largely legal tricks by which debt-collectors get court orders regarding debtors with which the debtors find difficult to comply, resulting in jail for violation of the court order, often over trifling sums.

Yet Illinois isn't the only state where residents get locked up for owing money. A 2010 report by the American Civil Liberties Union that focused on only five states -- Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Washington -- found that people were being jailed at "increasingly alarming rates" over legal debts. Cases ranged from a woman who was arrested four separate times for failing to pay $251 in fines and court costs related to a fourth-degree misdemeanor conviction, to a mentally ill juvenile jailed by a judge over a previous conviction for stealing school supplies.

According to the ACLU: "The sad truth is that debtors' prisons are flourishing today, more than two decades after the Supreme Court prohibited imprisoning those who are too poor to pay their legal debts. In this era of shrinking budgets, state and local governments have turned aggressively to using the threat and reality of imprisonment to squeeze revenue out of the poorest defendants who appear in their courts."

Some states also apply "poverty penalties," including late fees, payment plan fees, and interest when people are unable to pay all their debts at once, according to a report by the New York University's Brennan Center for Justice. Alabama charges a 30 percent collection fee, for instance, while Florida allows private debt collectors to add a 40 percent surcharge on the original debt. Some Florida counties also use so-called collection courts, where debtors can be jailed but have no right to a public defender.

Jailed for $280: The Return of Debtors' Prisons (via Naked Capitalism)

(Image: A_debtor_in_Fleet_Street_Prison_THS, Wikimedia Commons)


  1. When you consider how much crime is committed because of poverty, the whole notion of debtors’ prison expands exponentially.

    1. And then one add in the whole “prison-industrial complex” angle…

      Makes one wonder what costs more, a functional social security system, or no such system…

      1. Ah, but these policy decisions have to be based on profits as well as costs. And this system makes hefty profits for the security industry, and for the prison industry, and for the companies which use prison labor.

      2. Well said, but for some dysfunctional reason, those with the mountains of cash and their hands on the levers of power tend towards, seem to prefer, things the way their elders had it:  The Gilded Age.

  2. That ain’t all. Here in Oregon, jails are now being run by private contractors (yes, things are getting more and more like Snow Crash). These contractors charge the inmates hefty fees for basic services – so if you are jailed for non-payment of a fine, for example, you go even deeper in hoc simply by being put in jail, on top of any further judicial penalty.

    1.   Which jails are these? I can’t find anything about this on the internet other than the fact that private prisons are illegal in Oregon.

      1. Although it is apparently not privately managed, Lane County’s Community Correction Center is an option for getting out of or avoiding entry into the main jail in many cases (people are sentenced to the center, instead of jail, by the court system). It is an example of a system that enforces debt repayment by sending people to jail if they don’t or can’t pay up. Lose your job, go to jail.

        “Once placed at the CCC, participants are required to obtain reasonable employment. They are also responsible for meeting financial responsibilities which include paying a fee that covers the cost of staying at CCC, paying court ordered restitution such as alimony or child support, and paying any other debts.”

    1.  The irony is that the revolution while probably overdo will only make things much worse for the the majority of the population  of the US and possibly the world for many decades after

      While its possible  the entire political class could be dealt with, collective punishment applied to supporting institutions (schools, lobbyists,the press, businesses, etc)  either by a revolution or a sufficient legal citizens uprising in scale and all that revolutionary jazz there is no political movement that has enough legitimacy to govern a continent sized nation . after that. The military could maybe, maybe but even that is dicey

      The differences in how things should be  done, in beliefs on some issues  are so great that the US would have to divest power to states and localities  which makes stuff like the above article even more likely.

      The fact is only some states   wants to be a modern  Social Democracy the others like Panem and Gilead, and some  Galt’s Gulch .. That doesn’t work…

      Most importantly the systems we use to provide for ourselves are very brittle .Given that farmers  and people able to provide for themselves are maybe 10 % of the population, we could lose half or more of the population from  hunger, violence disease, neglect, injury and

      Now future generations would be taught it was worth it and given that’s a subjective question anyway, maybe they are right. I don’t know but its a high price to pay and no matter how much this injustice makes my blood boil excuse me if I don’t cheer a revolution on.

      1. I take your point, but I think post-revolution an EU-style setup could work for the US. Not each state its own nation, but they’d be separated into ideologically distinct zones (crudely, “Red States” and “Blue States” would split into two or more separate countries). 

        Borders would be essentially left open, and you’d be free to move to and work anywhere (the details would be messy to work out I guess). Federal governance would thus not be in an eternal deadlock. Red America (ha) would devolve into a fundamentalist wasteland, which is regrettable, but it means that Blue America can finally be progressive.

        Once Red America collapses, they’ll beg for reunification. Ultra-conservatism will never cause major problems again once they prove to themselves that their policies won’t work. And, by the way, there’d be enough opposing ideology in Blue America that it won’t devolve into dictatorial communism.

        1. The EU doesn’t work for Europe all that well (c.f the PIIGS) and pretty much every nation there is a Social Democracy. The US is far more ideologically and economically balkanized

          I am also not as sure the Red States would be begging for Blue State aid or feel the need to be a part of that Republic or have open borders. Its not in their interest. Open borders are not in Blue States interest as without a Federal boot they’ll take every low paying job they can and fill them with prison labor or “right to work” surfs. That will hurt Red States and increase their poverty and tax rates, thats not good.

          Also , many Red States are resource rich and while often not well governed  might be held together by a mix of ideology, resource exploitation and ultra low social costs. They can strip mine and frack away and sell the proceeds to wherever and whoever and use the revenue to  suppress internal issues.

          This is not a pleasant model but it can be fairly stable.

          This is  a real  hazard for a Republic 2.0 and Blue States with high social welfare costs and an aging population. A Progressive Nation might run like Europe but it will suffer from Europe’s big issue,  low birth rates . Right now this is an issue in New England and minus immigration would be an issue in the East as well

          Ina  blow up  can count on low immigratuion for a while, dead economy, hostile country, ethnic strife and you can count on the Red States who already have population growth making efforts to raise that mainly by anti-choice and some birth control restrictions as well as alterations in the status of women.

          You’ll end up with a nasty situation resembling ACW 1.0 but with an aging, tax burdened partially de-industrialized Union facing a fast growing backwater.

  3. And if Junior can’t find a job to pay off those college loans is he going to jail? And will the parents have to ransom him, as if he’d been kidnapped by a Mexican drug cartel? 

    That’s pretty tidy way of squeezing money out of family members who aren’t part of the legal issue.

    And how about medical debt? Has anyone been sent to prison for the crime of being sick? 

    1. First two sentences of the article:

      “How did breast cancer survivor Lisa Lindsay end up behind bars? She didn’t pay a medical bill — one the Herrin, Ill., teaching assistant was told she didn’t owe. “

      1.  The US:  “Hey, we took Charles Dickens and are now using his works as an instruction manual!”
        England:  “We did the same thing with Orwell!”
        Together:  “Freedom Twins high five !”
        [They high five and exit together laughing]

    1. Bring back the English  Treadmill, where prisoners were forced to walk on wheels like stairsteppers to provide human power to prison industries.  Sometimes the treadmills weren’t connected to anything at all. 

  4. When Canadians come off as superior that is really just how we cover up our anxiety that this kind of thing could cross the border. And that’s why so many of us hate (fear) Stephen Harper. A system just like this is right out of his playbook.

    1.  I do wonder how that will play out. Will we get 3-4 clusters of states, or will they manage to maintain the current layout…

    2.  Sadly, it would appear that the ones most willing and eager to literally fight a Revolution 2.0 are the Tea Party types…And I can’t even begin to imagine the sort of dystopia their revolution would bring.

      1. They can secede and fuck up their own country, until they beg for reunification (we won’t fight a civil war to keep them this time).

  5.  Our society is grown  increasingly stupid,  you’d think we all the economists out there that very basic stuff  like the problem of surplus production  and incentives against economic activity would be understood but I guess not

    The reason we stopped imprisoning debtors is not humane, “humane” purposes are almost always a pretext . We do it  because debt slavery  hurts economic activity. The last thing a capitalist society wants is for people to become debt shy and  move to a high savings low trust economy.

     China, Japan and too a lesser degree Germany  can get away with such high savings that because people in other places spend too much. If everyone saves, avoids debt, puts off families and moves to he most careful  economic platform possible, and with stories like that many will  this won’t create some Calvinist wonder of economic growth, it will kill modern society stone dead.

    No one will be living on interest (bye bye retirement) there will be fewer buyers for anything and much less surplus to be taxed. A nation of yeoman farmers and robust communities  is certainly more in like with what the Founding Fathers wanted, its probably not a bad place to live but its not modern and for those in office who find the empire and all its perks groovy, well .. I hope they can live without …

  6. This really got its start with child support payments. If a father (it’s usually a father; the general rule is that moms get custody, dads get bills) loses his job or takes a lower-paying  job, it is rare to be able to get a reduction in child support. It is almost always considered “voluntary impoverishment”.  If dad can’t make payments, his wages, if any, get garnished. Quite often mom gets the dependent tax deduction, so after taxes and child support, dad can’t make rent and car payments. Officially, he probably makes too much for food stamps or other services. Naturally he can’t afford any legal representation, not that it would do much good. Fortunately, the judge will step in and solve the food and shelter problems by jailing the man. This will generally get the man out of his lousy job, too, if the garnishment didn’t already. He will have his passport and driver’s license taken away, too.

    If the father has custody and the mother owes child support, it is generally because she is a drug addict or otherwise both unemployable and a danger to the children. The courts generally realize that there is no point in trying to squeeze here and it is rare for there to be anything like the consequences for non-custodial moms as there are for dads.

    (This is not from direct personal experience, but from working a few years in a small family law office for a female lawyer who specialized in representing fathers in divorce and custody disputes. More than once she commented wryly on how debtors’ prison was supposed to be a thing of the past. She herself not only never got rich, she never got out of debt, especially after she got sick. She never went to prison for her debts – it was closer to a death sentence. Nevertheless the judges shut down the courthouse serving a population of over 200,000 people so that they could come to her funeral. It was an honor to be with her every day in her final months.)

  7. I think this is good motivation not to spend beyond your means and to try to live below your means, lest you end up without.

    1. And the poor should not be so irresponsible as to have children or get sick or lose their jobs, I suppose.

Comments are closed.