Incarcerated in the Modern Day Debtor’s Prison

New Debtor's Prison

New Debtor's prison, complete with real bars!
New Debtor's prison, complete with real bars!

Return of Debtor's Prison

Think that debtor’s prison is a nightmarish thing of the past? That Charles Dickens' books relating the horrors of debtor’s prisons in 19th century England no longer exist? Think again.

There are a variety of ways modern people in the United States are currently being incarcerated for debts owed, regardless of the fact that in 1833 the United States abolished Federal imprisonment for unpaid debts. Similarly, around that time, many states took action to outlaw the practice as well.

Sadly, there has been a reappearance of incarceration for debt in the United States. Ironically incarceration reduces the chance that those who owe can pay off the debt at all. In addition, taxpayers pay the exorbitant cost to incarcerate generally non-violent people with all variety of criminals.

Since the opportunity to resolve debts depends on being free to work or otherwise to come up with the money, jailed debtors face a catch-22 situation: They cannot leave to resolve the debt, nor will they be released without paying the debt!

Debts That Are Not Forgiven

There are specific types of debts which will not normally be forgiven for US citizens. It is fairly well known that the IRS will relentlessly pursue citizens for taxes. Howsoever owing fines or court costs can also land a person in jail as well as being delinquent in child support payments. Ironically, the high cost of incarcerating citizens often far outstrips the debt itself and is paid for by tax payers.

In the video below, Ricardo Graham talks about his February 2007 incarceration for court fines. For a $745 fine, Ricardo was kept in prison for 40 days, costing RI taxpayers approximately $4,000.

Incarcerated for Fines

New Ways to Incarcerate for Standard Consumer Debt

More traditional consumer debt is not without peril of incarceration as well. Debt collectors and collection agencies often file lawsuits that at least require debtors to show up in court. Failing to show up, i.e. Failure to Appear, then is a crime which generates a warrant for that person's arrest.

View a story from the Star Tribune below:

Serving Time for Standard Consumer Debt

The Revolving Door to Jail

As if on the side of collection agencies, judges now commonly set bail of those arrested on warrents to the amount owed in court. The intent of bail is to insure persons show up in court and is not intended for private collection purposes as it appears to be a common practice nowadays.

When a court judgment is issued with debt collection payment terms, a citizen can thereafter be jailed not for debt, but for violating a court order. Again, taxpayers pay the high cost of incarcerating such citizens. Meanwhile the person incarcerated cannot leave jail to work, cannot work to pay their way out of jail and has “entered the Twilight Zone”, one could say! Failure to keep up with the payments will insure a repeat trip to jail.

Clearly, work needs to be done to extract the courts from putting debtors in Catch-22 positions as well as to extract courts and law enforcement from apparently acting as collectors.


To wrap up, common people are often surprised and dismayed that they can end up in prison or jail by owing fines, back child support, etc.

Such imprisonment hardly addresses the problem at hand which mainly happens when financial difficulties cause the levying of such fees. Ironically, by throwing people in such debtor's prisons, the person is less able than ever to find their way out of financial difficulties. Society suffers as a whole by making a productive person unable to work.

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Comments 18 comments

K9keystrokes profile image

K9keystrokes 6 years ago from Northern, California

This amazes me. My hope is this will not lead to bring back the rack! Good luck with you vote in RI! Good job here.

Laura in Denver profile image

Laura in Denver 6 years ago from Aurora Author

I am not in RI, but this is happening everywhere. :-(

Thanks for the comment!

aguasilver profile image

aguasilver 6 years ago from Malaga, Spain

Good hub, crazy situation....


John  Lakewood profile image

John Lakewood 6 years ago from Lakewood, CO

Sad how it is now a crime to be poor.

Laura in Denver profile image

Laura in Denver 6 years ago from Aurora Author

Thank you. As many in jail work in the jail, it could also be considered indentured servitude.

ethel smith profile image

ethel smith 6 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

Sacry stuff. In the Uk you can be jailed for non payment of council tax. It has to be a priority bill

James A Watkins profile image

James A Watkins 6 years ago from Chicago

I have heard that this is a growing trend. Also, we have already had tens of millions of men locked up in debtor's prisons since the 1970s for unpaid child support.

Laura in Denver profile image

Laura in Denver 6 years ago from Aurora Author

Anyone jailed for owing a debt is so much less able to pay it (barring the case of hidden assets, of course).

Surely, there must be a better way.

Bella DonnaDonna profile image

Bella DonnaDonna 6 years ago from New Orleans, LA

Unpaid traffic tickets can also throw you in the slammer. Thank you.

Laura in Denver profile image

Laura in Denver 6 years ago from Aurora Author

Yes and ironically if you are arrested, your car could be towed and many other expenses can add up. At the worst time financially for you!

Ben Zoltak profile image

Ben Zoltak 6 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA

Well done Laura, more needs to be recognized as far as improper imprisonment goes. How about leaving the debtors and nonviolent criminals out of prison! We'd save so much money!


Laura in Denver profile image

Laura in Denver 6 years ago from Aurora Author

Yes, recently those in jail are there for petty "crimes" including owing fees, child support, etc. There must be a better way!

Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 5 years ago from England

Hi, this doesn't surprise me, its like over here when you get a debt and because you can't pay it off straight away they just add another hundred pounds to it! whats the point of that? cheers nell

Laura in Denver profile image

Laura in Denver 5 years ago from Aurora Author

Also if you are late on a credit card payment, the first thing they do is slap on a big fine then put a bad mark on your credit rating thus increasing fines and interest rates.


Portamenteff profile image

Portamenteff 5 years ago from Western Colorado, USA

I've seen evidence that ll crimes are commercial in nature and that a bond is created when a charge is brought into the court. So really all incarcerated people are "debtors" since the common law is out of the picture.

Laura in Denver profile image

Laura in Denver 5 years ago from Aurora Author

I don't quite understand--please explain.

Martha 4 years ago

It IS a catch-22. How to pay when incarcerated? Duh!

Laura in Denver profile image

Laura in Denver 4 years ago from Aurora Author

It certainly does not make sense to re-visit Dickensonian England! Thx!

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