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.
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.
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.
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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