The return of debtors prisons

Throwing people in jail because of their inability to pay debts was one of the horrors of England that Charles Dickens inveighed against, he himself suffering from a deep sense of shame because his father met such a fate. Since 1830, such a practice is no longer legal in the US but the US has brought back what are effectively debtor’s prisons, because people have found ways to jail you for ostensibly other reasons but which in reality are based on your inability to pay debts. “Under the law, debtors aren’t arrested for nonpayment, but rather for failing to respond to court hearings, pay legal fines, or otherwise showing “contempt of court” in connection with a creditor lawsuit.”

This article says that debt collectors are colluding with hospitals and are even embedded in hospitals and emergency rooms.

To patients, the debt collectors may look indistinguishable from hospital employees, may demand they pay outstanding bills and may discourage them from seeking emergency care at all, even using scripts like those in collection boiler rooms, according to the documents and employees interviewed by The New York Times.

In some cases, the company’s workers had access to health information while persuading patients to pay overdue bills, possibly in violation of federal privacy laws, the documents indicate.

Stephen Colbert did a segment on this.

(This clip appeared on May 2, 2012. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post.)

Dickens also fought against the practice of child labor but with Newt Gingrich thinking that it would be just dandy to hire children to work as janitors, we would seem to be returning to the days of Victorian England.


  1. henry gale says

    I wonder if the for-profit prison industry has a hand in bringing debtor prisons back.

    Back in 2009 Infowars reported a story where a Michigan woman was sent to jail because…

    The details of Nowlin’s case are even more alarming than the Times editorial suggests. Not only was Nowlin under orders to pay a fine stemming from someone else’s actions, but she had been laid off from work and lost her home at the time she was ordered to “reimburse” the county for her son’s detention.

    Despite her inability to pay, she was held in contempt of court and ordered to serve a 30-day sentence. On March 6, three days after she was incarcerated, she was released for one day to work. She also picked up her paycheck, in the amount of $178.53. This, she thought, could be used to pay the $104, and she would be released from jail.

    But when she got back to the jail, the sheriff told her to sign her check over to the county — to pay $120 for her own room and board, and $22 for a drug test and booking fee.

    Even more absurd, Nowlin requested but was denied a court-appointed lawyer. So because she was too poor to afford a lawyer and denied her constitutional right to have the court provide one for her, she couldn’t fight the contempt charge that stemmed from her poverty. And her contempt conviction only added to her poverty, as the fines and fees she was obligated to pay now multiplied.

    and later:

    The privatization of misdemeanor probation has placed unprecedented law enforcement authority in the hands of for-profit companies that act essentially as collection agencies. These companies, focused on profit rather than public safety or rehabilitation, are not designed to supervise people or connect them to services and jobs. Rather, they charge exorbitant monthly fees and use the threat of imprisonment and a variety of bullying tactics to squeeze money out of the men and women under their supervision.

  2. Kevin says

    I can’t see how this is legal. In order to be held for contempt of court, disobeying a court order, etc. you have to be able to fulfill the order. It’s one of the elements that they have to prove in order for you to be found guilty. If you don’t have enough money to pay the fine, child support, etc. you can’t be legally charged. It appears that the judges in these cases are breaking the law on a massive scale.

  3. Jager2 says

    But, as always, too few people take notice, the media doesn’t do it’s job to bring this front and center, the public is largely apathetic, etc..

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t want to live on this planet anymore.

  4. says

    Well, defaulting on a court order is contempt of court. It’s how a civil matter can escalate to a criminal one. Whether or not the court had the right to make that order in the first place is another matter (and really should have been discussed then; sounds like someone not doing their job properly).

    We don’t have such things as medical bills in the UK, of course. Which raises a question: Are prisoners in the USA expected to pay for their stay? (And what with, if they were locked up for the “crime” of being skint?)

  5. Kevin says

    “Well, defaulting on a court order is contempt of court.”

    This is false.

    From wiki: “A person found in contempt of court is called a “contemnor.” To prove contempt, the prosecutor or complainant must prove the four elements of contempt:

    Existence of a lawful order
    The potential contemnor’s knowledge of the order
    The potential contemnor’s ability to comply
    The potential contemnor’s failure to comply”

    Defaulting only proves the person’s failure to comply. I think it is safe to assume that for most cases, it is a lawful order (e.g. payment for a lost civil case) and that the person knows about the order. The missing element is their ability to comply with the order. If someone is unable to pay, then they can’t be legally charged with contempt of court for defaulting.

  6. ShowMetheData says

    Ed Brayton with a Dispatches Blog-Entry on Debtor’s Prisons blogs about how they are using the fees and such on criminal defendants and inmates.
    “Failure to pay them, even if you have no means of doing so, often lands people in prison”
    This turns the poor into a permanent under-class who are funding the system that does not work.

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