The Shackles Return: Why Debtors’ Prisons Are Making An American Comeback

Saturday, November 1, 2014
By Paul Martin

Devon Douglas-Bowers
Activist Post.com
Saturday, November 1, 2014

The debtors’ prison is an old, decrepit institution that many thought was abolished in the 19th century, something little more than a relic of the past. This is a problematic view for two reasons. One, debtors’ prisons are rarely explored in the classroom or the larger society. And two, these prisons are making a serious comeback in the United States, which is deeply problematic for the poor and working class.

The History of Debtors’ Prisons

The traditional view of debtors’ prisons in the U.S. is one of wretched incarceration where debtors were hung out to dry. While this is true, there is also more to the story.

In early colonial America, English law had an influence on colonial law – and laws regarding debt. In 16th century England, creditors had the legal power via the Law of Merchant to regain their money from insolvent debtors. They had this same power in Pennsylvania where, in 1682, the law stated that anyone who was in debt and had been arrested would be kept in prison, or “the debtor [could] satisfy the debt by servitude as the county court shall order, if the creditor desires.” While debt servitude was problematic, it provided a way for a debtor to obtain eventual release.

The situation was worse in Massachusetts, which ruled in 1638 that “delinquent taxpayers be jailed, but provided that the Council or any court within Massachusetts could free the prisoner if it found him incapable of paying his taxes.” However, as early as the next year, private debtors were being imprisoned as well, and in 1641 the courts ruled that “anyone who failed to pay a private debt could be kept in jail at his own expense until the debt was paid.” Laws like these resulted in people dying in prisons when they were unable to pay off their debts.

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