The Debt Prisons of 21st Century USA
Published July 12, 2022
The United States Federal Government abolished the debt prisons in 1833. But apparently, the practice of jailing people for failing to pay their debts didn’t stop there.
According to areport, thousands of Americans are sent to jail every year for owing money. Millions more are threatened with imprisonment. This only shows that debt prisons are still very much alive in the 21st century USA.
History of Debtors Prison in America
The origin of debtor’s prison in the US is intertwined with its history of colonization.
Most of the early colonists that were shipped to the New World were debtors. At that time, debtors’ prisons were a staple in most of Europe, particularly in Great Britain. In fact, a large percentage of the prison population was imprisoned because of unpaid debts.
Instead of letting them rot in prison, the government decided that they should work for their debts instead. So they were shipped to the colonies as indentured servants. The crown basically sold them to wealthy plantation owners who were only too happy to get free labor in exchange for food and meager shelter.
As more and more of these indentured servants arrived, the concept of debtors’ prison eventually took root in the colonies.
Eventually, laws punishing defaulting debtors were established in every state. Prisons that were specially reserved for debtors were also built all over the country.
These prisons were purposely built to be as uncomfortable as possible. In some places, the prisoners were even said to have been chained to a wall.
In most states, the debtors were jailed until they secured enough funds to pay their debts. They may also be given the chance to work for their debts through years of penal labor. Because of this, many debtors have died while in prison.
After America gained its independence, people were not so keen on the idea of the new country jailing its own citizens because of debt. So, Congress enacted a federal law that effectively banned debt prisons in the country. As a result, the business of punishing debtors was left to each individual state.
The Rise of Modern Debt Prisons
America was one of the first countries in the West to get rid of debtors’ prisons. At least, that’s what appears on paper.
In reality, however, debtors’ prisons were only abolished on a federal level. Most states still have provisions for punishing people who’ve defaulted on their obligations.
So even if they don’t officially exist, a modern version of debt prisons continues to haunt Americans today.
According to theFines and Fees Justice Center (FFJC), in 15 out of 50 states, people have been jailed for fines of less than $60. One South Carolina woman even spent almost two months in jail for missing a payment on her traffic ticket.
The rise of these modern debt prisons, however, did not come abruptly. When the government launched its War on Crime in 1965, it also started imposing harsh penalties for the most minor of infractions.
This tough stance on crime did not only lead to mass incarcerations. The excessive fines and penalties also drove many Americans into debt. People with limited income usually can’t afford to pay those exorbitant fines. As a result, many of them end up spending time in prisons.
The Debt Trap
Charles Dickens, who once spent time in a debtor’s prison, once said that once you enter the debt-to-prison pipeline, there is no escape. That couldn’t be more true in today’s world.
You see, going to prison for defaulting on an obligation is more than just a punishment. It’s a trap that often victimizes the most vulnerable members of our society.
People who get incarcerated tend to lose their job. Without a job, they won’t be able to raise funds to pay for their debt. And if they can’t pay their debts, they end up in jail. It’s a never-ending cycle that can have repercussions for generations.
Aside from losing their job, locking people up also affects their families. If the debtor/prisoner is a breadwinner, their families will be left with no source of income. As a result, many of them end up on the streets or forced to do crimes that could send them to jail too.
What Kind of Debts Can Send You to Jail?
Not all debts can send you to prison. Since the abolishment of the debtor’s prison, failure to pay “civil debts” doesn’t warrant prison time anymore. This includes student loans, credit cards, or hospital bills.
However, failing to pay taxes or any child support constitutes fraud. Depending on the amount you owe, you can be charged with either a misdemeanor or felony.
Debt collectors also sometimes use the legal system to send you to prison. One of the most common ways they do this is by requesting the court to subject you to a debtor’s examination.
If you fail to go to court for the debtor’s examination or pay the amount the court tells you to pay, you can be held in contempt. You are then sent to prison and a bond is set for your release.
Interestingly, the bond amount is usually equal to the amount you owe your creditors. Obviously, if you can’t pay your debt, then you don’t have the funds to pay your bond too. So you just stay in jail and serve your sentence.
Technically, you are incarcerated for failing to appear in court. But if you look at it closely, the reason why you are in prison is because of your debt. This is exactly how debtor’s prisons are making a comeback in the 21st century.
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About The Author
Judy Ponio is a professional writer and SEO specialist. She works hard to ensure her work uses accurate facts by cross checking reputable sources. She is the lead author for several prominent websites covering a variety of topics including law, health, nutrition, and more.