Our Future In Chains: The Debtors’ Prison System Returns
by Michael Edwards
The recent story of breast cancer survivor Lisa Lindsay being thrown in prison for a $280 medical bill that was sent in error has thankfully gone viral. It has brought much-needed attention to the insanity of reinstating the concept of debtors’ prisons.
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, however, 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.
An 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.