Charles Dickens had his childhood blighted because of the institution of the debtor’s prison. Because of his father’s debts he was unable to go to school and had to work in a factory instead . It didn’t stop him from becoming one of the best novelists of all time, but it did give him a ferocious and socially conscious view of life that informed his Victorian novels, as well as a history of England that he wrote later in life . One might think that the specter of debtor’s prison was far off and that as debt ridden as our societies are that we need not fear that horror, but we would be very wrong.
The imprisonment of debtors seems to be making a comeback. It is technically illegal to jail someone for debt, per se, but there are other ways of doing it that are becoming more popular in Illinois and other corrupt areas. After all, if creditors abuse the justice system, someone can be arrested for contempt of court, or not paying fines or not showing up at court dates. And then once someone is in jail, that is when things become more problematic. After all, the lone exception to the 13th Amendment, which prohibits slavery, is as a punishment for a crime. If being bankrupt in any fashion becomes criminalized, then slavery would be a legal and constitutional punishment, as chilling as that option is.
For two decades the United States Supreme Court has banned the imprisonment of those who could not pay legal debts, but the states are ignoring that decision for reasons unknown . After all, people cannot pay debts when they are in prison, so it would appear to be pointless to hinder someone’s ability to work if it was really the money one was after. If prisoners become a cheap source of labor, though, then one could see private firms seeking to profit off of the debt of others, by criminalizing debt in some fashion, and then by taking advantage of the captive/”free” labor of prisoners.
If the original debts weren’t bad enough, some states (especially in the South, like Alabama and Florida) add collection penalties and poverty penalties of 30 to 40% if a debtor is unable to pay at once, which can quickly add up to very high levels. In Florida, additionally, debtors can be tried in special courts without the benefit of legal counsel. Since Florida’s criminal system is the one that crystalized the right of counsel even for the most indigent of defendants, perhaps someone needs to sound Gideon’s trumpet  and ensure the right of counsel for all cases, including that of indebtedness. After all, if it’s a crime to be poor and in deep debt, then we are all in a lot of trouble, both individually and as a nation.
And we ought to reflect on precisely that point. After all, the treatment we provide to those who owe debts to us is the treatment we can expect from our creditors. Knowing that I have much to be forgiven of, I tend to be generous and forgiving to those who owe me debts. It does not seem as if that is the fashion these days, though, and that means that the debts of business and our society as a whole are not likely to be treated well. For now, it is the poor who suffer when they are unable to pay their debts, but there are many others who will certainly suffer later for their own callousness. I suppose we will know that we are really in trouble if debt collection agencies start working with private prison companies. Then we know that the debtor’s prison is back in full force. Not that I look forward to that day, by any means.