Tag Archives: debtors’ prison

The Business of Servitude: Debtors’ Prisons Make a Comeback

17 Jun
Our Future In Chains: The For-Profit Debtors’ Prison System

Michael Edwards


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.  America was not to be outdone, debtors’ prisons were widespread in the United States as well, 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 the rest of the America had followed.(1)

Now, debtors’ prisons seem to be making a comeback in America.  A recent article in the Star Tribune in Minnesota titled, “In jail for being in debt,” exposes the growing number of citizens going to jail at the behest of banks and a welcoming judicial system.  They write:

“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.”

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 both appropriately terrifying, as well as a profitable investment opportunity and 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 is not materializing.
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