Are We Headed for Debtor's Prison?

Are We Headed for Debtor's Prison?

There are some states in the U.S. (Arkansas, Arizona, Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota and Washington among them) that have no qualms arresting its citizens for unpaid debts.

Published March 25, 2011

Imagine, you’re a peaceful, law-abiding citizen with a fairly decent job that affords you the opportunity to pay your bills with a sliver of financial breathing room.

Then one day—through no fault of your own—you lose your job. Your unemployment insurance barely covers your mortgage, utilities and food, much less your car note, cell phone and credit card bills. To make matters worse, you take ill and go to the hospital for an extended period of time, accruing expensive medical bills that you can’t possibly hope to pay anytime soon. You are up to your receding hairline in debt with bill collectors calling you every 15 to 20 minutes. You tell them that you’d like to pay but you just don’t have the funds. They don’t care. All they want is the money that you owe them. Frustrated, you hang up and ignore all future attempts at communication. After all, they can’t throw you in jail for being broke and in debt, right? Well, that depends….

There are some states in the U.S. (Arkansas, Arizona, Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota and Washington among them) that have no qualms arresting its citizens for unpaid debts.

It seems that their laws allow unscrupulous collection agencies to lock up debtors who can’t or won’t pay by issuing a summons to court for an unpaid debt. If you fail to show up for court for whatever reason or show up and fail to pay the terms set forth by the court, you’re found in contempt of court. A contempt of court charge can land you in jail until you make bail or pay the debt, which can often be one and the same unless the judge sets a lesser bail that can be used as a down payment on your debt.

To make matters worse, you could possibly rack up more debt while in the slammer. Some states charge prisoners anywhere from $10-$60 a day for food and lodging. If you can’t pay those fees then you are obligated to work for the state to pay for your stay.  

If allowed to continue, this trend of debtors prison will have ominous implications for the working poor (many of whom are Black and Latino), the population that is disproportionately affected by this spiraling economy and most likely sentenced to longer prison terms.

If any of this sounds remotely familiar to you, it should. Prior to 1833, many U.S. citizens were thrown in jail for owing as little sixty cents. Many people remained incarcerated until their families paid their debt or they worked it off. Thousands of the nation’s poor languished in prison unjustly for years. Some even died in the filthy inhumane squalor of debtor’s prison. This is a very ugly chapter in American history we cannot afford to repeat.

 

(Photo: Dan Bannister/iStockphoto.com)

Written by Charlie Braxton

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