Debtor's Prison Definition and History

What Is A Debtors' Prison?

A debtors' prison is a building in which individuals who owe money are incarcerated.

They may owe debt to creditors or have declared themselves bankrupt and unable to pay their debts.

We tend to think of debtors' prisons as an infamous creation of the 19th century British penal system but in fact, there is evidence from the ancient civilizations that bondage, rather than incarceration was normal practice for being in debt to others .

The definition of 'debtors prison' when it is used to describe an actual building created to house debtors' is best illustrated by examples from England where debtors prisons were a well-established part of the penal system.

Examples from other parts of the world are often directly related to the English system because of colonisation by the British - China (Hong Kong), USA, Canada, Caribbean etc.

The United States was one of the first nations to get rid of debtors prisons, though in the recession affected economy of the last 4 years, there has been a return to imprisoning debtors in the USA.

Is prison really the best way to punish those in debt? Not all 19th century debtors prison were lenient; debtors were treated like other more serious criminals.

Marshalsea Prison - home to London's debtors in the 18th century.
Marshalsea Prison - home to London's debtors in the 18th century. | Source
The rather spooky looking Kings Bench Prison
The rather spooky looking Kings Bench Prison | Source

Debtors Prisons in Britain

In the 19th century, Great Britain had the most strict laws when it came to debt collection and those in debt to creditors.

The idea behind debtors' prisons was to ensure that the experience was so appalling that the prisoner in the debtors' prison would be able to find a member of their family or other benefactor to pay their debt and in effect purchase their freedom.

There are a number of famous examples of Englishmen who ended up in a debtors prison', perhaps most notably, the father of the author, Charles Dickens.

John Dickens was imprisoned at Marshalsea in 1824, leading his wife to take herself and the children to reside with him at the prison. Charles was sent to board with a family friend and found a job to raise money for his keep. It is only due to the payment of an inheritance that John Dickens was able to pay off his debts and leave the debtors prison.

The whole affair is thought to have had a profound effect on Charles Dickens and Marshalsea Prison among other debtors' prisons are featured in a number of his novels.

Interestingly, William Penn, founder of the state of Pennsylvania was imprisoned at the Fleet Prison as a debtor in 1707.

The law was changed in Britain in 1869 which prevented imprisonment for debt alone.

Debtors' Prison, Frankfurt
Debtors' Prison, Frankfurt | Source

A History of Debtors Prisons - Then and Now

To see where the debtors' prisons of England fit into the wider history of debtors' prisons, it is necessary to look at what classical history tells us about the treatment of debtors in society.

It is important to consider context when we look at the idea of 'debt' in any given period of society.

Debt in modern society is a very different beast to debt in Athens or Rome.

What seems clear is that 'debt' as a concept was ill advised if you cherished your freedom.

In ancient Greece and Rome, early forms of repayment for debt lead the debtor to be 'in bondage' to their creditor.

Often, men repaid the debt by working for the creditor but this was often abused because it was difficult to set a period of bondage or agree to how much work paid off a debt.

Unfortunately, in Greece, debt repayment became a matter of the law and soon bondage turned into slavery and sometimes chattel bondage. Slavery was more pernicious and led to people being sold by their creditors into slavery elsewhere.

The Greek statesman, Solon, reconfigured the Athenian law to stop the abuse of debtors and eventually bondage too was shortened to sensible acts of repayment.

Debtors Prisons in the Middle Ages

During the middle ages, debtors prisons existed much as they did in Britain in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century with whole families living in the prison until the debt was repaid.

Sadly, health and sanitation were not considered a high priority for the prison population and many debtors and/or their family members perished from diseases caught whilst inside of the debtors prison.

Germany had one of the most effective penal systems during the middle ages and had already established private debtors' prisons. Their debtors' laws were far in advance of the rest of Europe and had already established a system whereby those incarcerated in debtors' prisons could seek other means to pay their creditors, for example, by working off the debt over an agreed period.

The debtors prisons themselves were often situated in castle fortifications - somewhat more picturesque and grand than the English examples.

Contemporary Debtors Prisons

Hong Kong, for many years a British colony is largely responsible for the way debtors prisons are run in China today. It is possible to be imprisoned for life if the debt was made due to 'malicious intent'.

In Greece, the law in regard to being incarcerated in a debtors prison was changed in 2008, after 173 years, though it is still possible to be placed in a debtors prison if you owe substantial debt to a bank.

Dubai and the United Arab Emirates still imprison people for defaulting on a debt.

Banks do not approve of people not paying them back and usually will seek prosecution against debtors.

Most people choose to leave the country rather than face imprisonment, only returning if and when they are able to replay the debt.

Boston debt prison
Boston debt prison | Source
The 'industrial' area of Boston, 19th century
The 'industrial' area of Boston, 19th century | Source
Occomac Debtors Prison, Virginia
Occomac Debtors Prison, Virginia

Debtors Prisons in The United States - Then and Now

The United States of America had debtors prisons due to its colonisation by the British but after independence started to dissemble the debtors' processes of payment.

Most of the debtors' in prisons in the USA during the late eighteenth century were there due to abject poverty arising from the war of independence itself.

The government of the individual states commuted many sentences preferring to refer debtors' families to the poorhouse. The photos included show the area of Boston given over to industry but the house of corrections and the poorhouse are both very close by!

In fact, the poorhouse, whilst not as drastic or unpleasant as debtors prison was almost as bad because if you ended up in the poorhouse, then you could not look for work. You had accepted that you needed support from the state. Documents from this period including Thomas Jefferson's opinion that "dependence begets subservience and venality" suggests that he considered the poor house a temporary support for only the most needy.

Virginia was the last state to close their debtors' prison, Occomac in 1849. The state had 3 substantial debtors prisons.

In the current recession there have been a return to imprisonment in the USA for defaulting on a debt. Only recently a woman was imprisoned for non-payment of a medical bill (she was being treated for breast cancer and had been told by the hospital to ignore the bill, it did not need to be paid) which led to a collection agency handcuffing her and leading her to her local police station to be jailed.

There are many people in the USA up in arms about this at the moment given that the law for imprisonment in regard to debt were abolished in the 1830s.

There are no debtors prisons as such, local jails are being used due to geographical proximity but being handcuffed by a collection agent going about your normal day is getting to be more and more prevalent in the states. Let's hope this new trend is short-lived.

Could We End Up With Debtors Prisons Again?

In 2012, the world is a very different place with most of the western nations in recession and banks in Europe and the United States in a pretty flat condition.

Could we, then, see a return to debtors prisons on the same scale as in the nineteenth century?

The state of Illinois has recently put legislation forward to stop people being hunted down for non-payment of minor debt in the state.

In the United Kingdom, there are government-backed schemes to support people to repay debt at a rate they can afford based on their income and the Citizens Advice take more calls than ever from people in serious debt.

And most people would probably say that if debtor's prisons do get a legal reprieve, the cells might first be too full of bank executives - aren't they the biggest debtors in the world at the moment?

Many thanks for reading.

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Comments 20 comments

Lee Cloak 21 months ago

Great hub, well done. very interesting,thanks!


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

Thankfully Michelle, they no longer exist. It must have been a pretty dire time for those who were stuck in them - sometimes their family was in there with them.


midget38 profile image

midget38 3 years ago from Singapore

I think the solution shouldn't be prison...rather, it should be finding better ways to guarantee that the loan is returned, i.e.. responsible guarantors and debtors and whether these folk have steady jobs. The concept of debtor's prisons is an. interesting one,Thanks, Jools!


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

Dianna, the signs are that debtor's prisons are coming back in a different form but you're right, we live in different times now and we'd all be in the clink :o)


teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 3 years ago

Jools, I hope we do not see a return of debtor's prison: a lot of us would be in there! I imagine Charles Dickens derived a good deal of his writing from the experience of living in this atomsphere. It did do some good for society.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

Paula, you're right of course, we've all usually got some debt somewhere. I don't think the Victorians were quite so kind-hearted if they were owed money :o) This hub was one of those new 'exclusives' they do, a sort of auto-suggest when you 'write a new hub'. I would never have selected it as a subject but I quite enjoyed researching it and writing it.


fpherj48 profile image

fpherj48 3 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

Debtor's PRISON? You know, I'm convinced that I do live under a rock...or need to interact with the outside world more often!! I'm sure I have never been aware of this LUDICROUS scenario!

In 2012......There would not be enough prison space.....Even if I thought for hours, I don't think I can come up with ONE person I know, who is not IN DEBT. It's like being ALIVE.....It just IS!!....This is so interesting and for me....educating. WHEW! Am I glad they don't do this anymore......UP+++


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

Pavlo, many thanks for reading!


Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

Pavlo Badovskyy 3 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

Interesting and worth reading!


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

Linda, you'd be great at secreting in files into pies etc! But people would love you to visit anyway, you'd make them laugh through their tears!


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

Ha Ha Mary; there could be a few of us in the clink if you looked at our credit card bills on 31st December! But you're right, thankfully, they're gone now (for now.....?)


Georgie Lowery profile image

Georgie Lowery 3 years ago from Slaton, Texas USA

You are right - she was never even served with the warrant to appear, which is required in most states in the US. She never knew she had a court date.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

shiningirisheyes, yes Dickens father was locked up with his wife and Charles' other siblings, he went to work at a factory sticking labels on shoe 'black' to make money to survive at an old friends house. Even after his dad got out of prispn, his mother encouraged him to stay at the factory!


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

Georgie, yes, I believe you are right but the reason she didn't appear was down t the hospital telling her she didn't need to - I think all of the recent visits to the 'clink' have been down to 'failure to appear' but apparently, its getting more common to pick people up and imprison them for small amounts now. I feel sorry for people in debt at this time of year, must be so tough. Thanks so much for your comment.


Georgie Lowery profile image

Georgie Lowery 3 years ago from Slaton, Texas USA

I think the woman who got arrested for not paying her medical bill was actually taken into custody for "failure to appear," and not the actual debt itself. Regardless, the idea of being put into jail for not paying my bills really worries me!


Sunshine625 profile image

Sunshine625 3 years ago from Orlando, FL

I'd be visiting many people I know if the debtors prison still existed. Of course I'd bring them a file to try to escape, for a fee of course! :)


mary615 profile image

mary615 3 years ago from Florida

I'm glad we don't have a debtor's prison any longer. I could be sentenced for running up my charge cards during Christmas! (just kidding, of course).

Interesting Hub.


shiningirisheyes profile image

shiningirisheyes 3 years ago from Upstate, New York

Wow - Charles Dickens father! Amazing and very interesting. If they were to imprison everyone in debt today, most of the population would be housed there.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

Bill, thanks for reading - you might know we'd be behinf the scruffiest, most disgusting ones - sometimes we just sent people to Australia!


billybuc profile image

billybuc 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

I was pretty sure it dated back to England and the Middle Ages. Thanks for the in-depth education; very interesting, Julie!

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