The Debtors Prison System Resurrected From The Grave

Update about the revival of the debtors prison in America

Debtors prisons were abolished
on the federal level in 1833.
In Accomack County, VA it took until 1849.

Michael Edwards
Activist Post

Debtors prisons have a sordid history that was thought to be best left behind in Medieval Europe and in Charles Dickens’ fictionalized accounts of the 19th-century hellholes of Victorian England.

However, debtors prisons were also widespread in the United States, and stories of the conditions in New York’s debtors prisons could make one question if repayment of debts was really the purpose; violent criminals were much better clothed and fed.  In fact, history shows that terror and slavery have always had a close relationship with debt, and it follows a path from the Romans right through to 17th-century England, and into America from English common law.  However, America chose to abolish her debtors prisons a full 36 years before England – first in New York in 1831, and by 1833 most of America had followed.(1)

But now they are back.

Fortunately, stories like that of breast cancer survivor Lisa Lindsay being thrown in prison for a $280 medical bill (sent in error) went viral.  It has brought much-needed attention to the insanity of reinstating the concept of debtors prisons. Nevertheless, despite still being illegal, debtors prisons are continuing their comeback for increasingly less severe violations. This can only happen if ignorance of the law prevails. With a worsening economy, and the growth of government power, now is the time to learn about this issue and speak out against an outdated and deplorable practice.

An article that appeared back in March of 2011in the Star Tribune from Minnesota titled, “In jail for being in debt,” exposed the growing number of citizens going to jail at the behest of banks and a welcoming judicial system. They wrote:

It’s not a crime to owe money, and debtors’ prisons were abolished in the United States in the 19th century. But people are routinely being thrown in jail for failing to pay debts. In Minnesota, which has some of the most creditor-friendly laws in the country, the use of arrest warrants against debtors has jumped 60 percent over the past four years, with 845 cases in 2009, a Star Tribune analysis of state court data has found. (emphasis added)

In our modern era of debt servitude, a PR Push has been designed to reintroduce a serious discussion of debtors prisons as a sound solution. What goes beyond alarming is that the full-fledged return of debtors prisons might be seen as appropriately terrifying, as well as a profitable investment opportunity and a politically sound decision to be made by state governments struggling with their own looming bankruptcies, and a Federal government struggling politically with the concept of a jobless recovery that refuses to materialize.

A de facto debtors prison has already been largely accepted in the case of “deadbeat” parents when a failure to pay child support puts them in civil contempt of court.  It is this civil contempt charge that has taken on an expanded definition to include those who owe for much smaller infractions.

When a court order to pay a debt is issued and ignored, it then qualifies as a civil contempt of court.  At that point, the judge becomes a literal dictator with the ability to imprison a person indefinitely for the violation.  The Constitution explicitly prohibits incarceration for failure to pay debts, but it is the violation of a court order that gives judges free rein to impose draconian punishments.  In this way, an end-run around the Constitution can become frighteningly commonplace.(2)

This situation has finally begun to draw the attention of the ACLU and the Brennan Center for Justice who see the illegality of debtors prisons, as well as the false presumption that such incarceration could even generate revenue.

“It’s a waste of taxpayer resources, and it undermines the integrity of the justice system,” Carl Takei, staff attorney for the ACLU’s National Prison Project, told

“The problem is it’s not actually much of a money-making proposition … to throw people in jail for fines and fees when they can’t afford it. If counties weren’t spending the money jailing people for not paying debts, they could be spending the money in other ways.”

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law released a “Tool Kit for Action” in 2012 that broke down the cost to municipalities to jail debtors in comparison with the amount of old debt it was collecting. It doesn’t look like a bargain. For example, according to the report, Mecklenburg County, N.C., collected $33,476 in debts in 2009, but spent $40,000 jailing 246 debtors — a loss of $6,524. (Source)

Coupled with courts ignoring Supreme Court rulings in 1970, 1971 and 1983, the above news story also highlights the increased use of private companies who have been empowered with the authority to arrest, incarcerate and extract whatever fines they are able to. This led to one judge calling it an “extortion racket.”

Some 15 private companies have emerged to run these services in the South, including the popular Judicial Correction Services (JCS).

In 2012, Circuit Judge Hub Harrington at Harpersville Municipal Court in Alabama shut down what he called the “debtors’ prison” process there, echoing complaints that private companies are only in it for the money. He cited JCS in part for sending indigent people to jail. Calling it a “judicially sanctioned extortion racket,” Harrington said many defendants were locked up on bogus failure-to-appear warrants, and slapped with more fines and fees as a result.

America already has a record-high ratio of people in prison, with no signs of the trend reversing as private corporations like Wackenhut, referred to as a “Free Market in Human Misery,” have long been enlisted to turn government directives into shareholder profit.  One might even deign to call it blatant fascism in its purest form, as government legislation leads offenders directly into private company coffers. The prison-industrial complex has already capitalized on government actions like The War on Drugs.  A prime example is how The California Correctional Peace Officers Association helped fuel the prison-building boom as a cozy relationship was established on Capitol Hill through influence peddling.(3)

Profiting from the suffering of the poor while bailouts and bonuses await the over-leveraged banksters, car companies, and state governments, sets up class warfare that is the domestic mirror of the military-industrial complex sent abroad. This domestic prison system seems to be the only industry left to build upon, and it is here that things become truly frightening.  For the federally-owned prison system complex, Federal Prison Industries (UNICOR), more incarceration means a growing supply of cheap labor and a skewing of unemployment numbers, as these inmates are often doing jobs they couldn’t even find if they were job hunting on the outside.  But it is the private prison system, with its web fully woven throughout the U.S. government, that stands to profit the most from the return of debtors’ admission.(4)

The largest private prison conglomerate in the U.S. is Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which controls more than 47% of all private prison and jail beds nationwide and is able to produce a double-digit annual return on new real estate investments. In the case of Ohio, which you will read about below, its Lake Erie Correctional Institution was sold to CCA in 2011. It was the first-ever sale of a public prison to a private firm. The 20-year contract includes a 90 percent occupancy quota requiring that Ohio — and its taxpayers — keep 1,530 of the 1,700 available beds occupied. (Source) Filling beds is mission #1.

Wackenhut (now subsumed into G4S, the largest security company in the world) is another of these mega private prison companies, and was started by an FBI agent, George Wackenhut, who is famous for developing millions of dossiers on America’s “potential subversives” in the sixties. He was exposed as being an integral player within the shadow CIA.(5)

These major security conglomerates are at the top of a growing pyramid of for-profit, international detention center operators that has Wall Street giants like Goldman Sachs simply fawning over the solid, long-term investment potential. Similar to war, when there is a profit to be made off of incarceration, only more incarceration can be expected to follow. And that is exactly what we see, as incarceration rates have gone up 500% in the last 30 years.

However, the Constitution still exists, and the ACLU and other advocates of justice are increasing efforts to raise awareness that the practice of debtors prisons must never be allowed to fully resurrect itself from the past. Studies indicate that there is work left to do:

The ACLU found that seven out of 11 counties they studied (in Ohio) were operating de facto debtors’ prisons, despite clear “constitutional and legislative prohibitions.” Some were worse than others. In the second half of 2012 in Huron County, 20 percent of arrests were for failure to pay fines. The Sandusky Municipal Court in Erie County jailed 75 people in a little more than a month during the summer of 2012. The ACLU says it costs upwards of $400 in Ohio to execute a warrant and $65 a night to jail people.


More recently in Colorado, the state ACLU completed a report on “pay or serve” programs throughout the state. In the case of Wheatridge and Northglenn counties, the penalty was one day in the clink for every $50 owed; in Westminster, every offender got an automatic 10 days in jail.

The report also found that one jail racked up more than $70,000 in costs for incarcerating 154 people over a five-month period in 2012 — and only managed to collect $40,000 in overdue fines and fees in that time. 

This is, therefore, not only an illegal system – it is a broken one, at least for taxpayers and the surrounding society in which they live.

Reform advocates are proposing the following solutions:

  1. Courts should investigate whether or not a person has the ability to pay. If not, community service may be considered as a form of payment.
  2. Judges must be made aware that they have the ability to waive fines and fees.
  3. Courts must properly determine if incarceration would impact current employment; thwart obtaining a job being imminently sought; and understand that extended incarceration would affect chances at future employment. (Statistics quoted by the article above show that 60 percent of those imprisoned are still out of work 1 year later.)
  4. Abolish or severely restrict the farming out of collections and legal power to private companies.
  5. The Supreme Court must continue educating judges and personnel on the statutes and constitutional restrictions of collecting fines and fees, as they have begun doing in Ohio, issuing “bench cards” as a quick reference.
  6. The court must establish a willful refusal to pay, prior to imposing any sentence. Jail time must be given a per diem dollar credit. 
  7. Courts must provide a clearly worded, printed document to the accused which states their rights; this information also should be made available on court webpages.
  8. All who have been wrongfully incarcerated must immediately receive retroactive credit. Additional fees incurred as the result of illegal arrests and warrants must be canceled. 

To read more about the personal stories of those who have been victimized by the system currently in place in Ohio, as well as additional suggestions for reform, please see the ACLU’s report 24-page report “The Outskirts of Hope.” as well as The Brennan Center’s 38-page “Toolkit for Action.”

And please share this information to ensure that people everywhere learn about laws and policies in their own respective states and counties that could blindside the unaware and lead to an unexpected detention in debtors prison.

Do you have your own personal story that you would like to share? Please add to the comment section below, or contact me directly: michael (at)

Other Articles Cited:

1. Jill Lepore, “I.O.U. – How We Used to Treat Our Debtors,” The New Yorker (April 13, 2009): 35.
2. Wendy McElroy,
3. Seth Sandronsky,
4. Christian Parenti,
5. John Connolly, “Inside the Shadow CIA,” SPY Magazine (September, 1992): Volume 6.

Recently from Michael Edwards:

Updated 12/26/2013

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