What is Debtor's Prison?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

At some point in history, having an unpaid debt would have been considered sufficient grounds for imprisonment. The debtor would be held in a designated debtor's prison until his or her family could satisfy the creditor's demands. A debtor's prison during the Middle Ages was often a large communal cell where both men and women lived in filthy conditions for months or even years, depending on the size of the debt and their family's ability to raise the money. Some debtors were allowed to work off their own debts through labor, but many were condemned to remain behind bars.

A debtor's prison allowed a debtor to be held until his or her family could satisfy the creditor's demands.
A debtor's prison allowed a debtor to be held until his or her family could satisfy the creditor's demands.

A debtor's prison was also a prime breeding ground for all sorts of diseases, which often led to a number of fatal outbreaks long before debts could be repaid in full. Some prisons allowed brief visitations from family members, and a few even allowed debtors to live outside the prison in order to produce their goods or pursue their trades. The concept of a prison for debtors was primarily to motivate family members to eradicate the debt as quickly as possible. Imprisoning the head of the household provided more than enough incentive, but quite often the debtor's families did not have the necessary skills or experience to run a profitable business.

The early United States government tolerated the establishment of a debtor's prison until passing a law to end the practice in 1833.
The early United States government tolerated the establishment of a debtor's prison until passing a law to end the practice in 1833.

The practice of imprisoning debtors in a squalid prison continued for several centuries. The early United States government tolerated the establishment of a debtor's prison until passing a law to end the practice in 1833. The British parliament followed suit in 1869, although it was still legal to briefly jail certain debtors who could afford to repay their debts but chose not to do so. Only a handful of countries around the world still have designated prisons for debtors for those who cannot repay large debts and do not have the legal protection of bankruptcy to ward off legal collection efforts by their creditors.

Some political pundits have suggested a return to the debtor's prison system as a way to address wholesale corporate fraud and mismanagement. If certain executives of troubled corporations or other failing institutions were forced to spend actual time in a modern debtor's prison, perhaps they would gain a better perspective on the seriousness of their actions and would not be tempted to commit such financial wrongdoing in the future. Others cite the increasing numbers of home foreclosures and personal bankruptcy filings as an indicator of the need for a modern debtor's prison in order to improve personal financial accountability.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


If you sell a TV for a promise to pay, it was your choice. If you accepted an unsecured promise to pay with no credit check, it was also your choice.

Clearly, there is a difference between that and someone stealing your TV. The difference is consent.


I declared a state of war against michigan a long, long time ago, and no I don't owe them any money and have never been charged with anything there. But I am at war with michigan.


How can Michigan get away with that? There is a case stating that once probation was revoked the court had no authority to go after unpaid fines and costs; however, I just lost this issue this week. Before I appeal, I'd love to know which statute/authority anon69121 was talking about. They seem to know what they are talking about.


How about a situation in Milwaukee WI where a real estate investor was unable to refinance his properties and was forced to let them go into foreclosure, which can take one to two years.

Meanwhile, the lenders are collecting the rents and the investor (who no longer has access to the properties) has received code violations on the properties which turn into fines up to $10,000 per building or 90 days in jail if you can’t pay.

Well, my fines are up to $80,000 and I'm bankrupt, but cannot include these fines in bankruptcy because they are looked at as “speeding tickets,” which cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.

Since then, I've found other landlords with fines up to $350,000! i should also mention that Milwaukee, WI is now the fourth poorest city in the country and it appears we are on the path of a “Detroit.”

Anyone’s help or direction would greatly be appreciated as I am going to fight the cases as far as I have to. I'm also a single parent and have no one to help raise my daughter if I should be put in jail.


I agree with everyone who has commented on the imprisonment for child support nonpayment. The way they do that does circumvent the 6th and 14th Amendments.

How is that a way to collect money from someone if you take that person out of society? When that person gets out, the jail record could keep them from getting a job to pay anything.

I pay child support, but I don't like the law where I could be subject to jail if I fall behind.


It is very wrong to put somebody behind bars for a debt. I live in carbon county, Utah and I am not from here but they imprison people for hospital bills. They send people to professional collections and then from there to the court and the county is so money hungry they keep people in jail to teach a lesson, so they say.

I think that's crap. Health care is hard to afford as it is so sick people become violently ill or die and then if they do have to go to the hospital they should go to jail. this county should be investigated.


I'm Hikemike from Ar. In a nutshell, If you move from Ar. and work in another state for six or eight months, and things don't work out and you move back to Ar. they will make you pay Ar. taxes on all the money you made in another state. If you refuse to pay it, then it is a felony and off to prison you go!


it is an outrage to incarcerate someone for a debt i.e. child support when the person cannot pay,it is also in violation of the 6th and 14th amendment of the u.s. constitution as well as most state constitutions, but judges refuse to give us the rights our for fathers set forth, all the while chalking up enormous debt. They are keeping truly poor people locked up and collecting minimal amounts of back support from the people that can afford to pay. Why? because the true deadbeats can afford competent counsel, so once again, the poor man loses his kids then his right to drive then his job and now his freedom. When will this atrocity end?


In my state of Michigan, if you are convicted of a crime, (a 90 day misdemeanor for instance) the judge will include fines and costs to the court totaling in the range of $600 to $1,000 and up. That is not including restitution to victims, that number is exclusively for the courts, any restitution would be added on top of that.

Let us say then, that after convicted, you are sentenced for the maximum amount of time allowed for the crime. (Again 90 days in this particular case.) The judge can actually send you to jail for time up to an additional 90 days after you are released from jail if you do not pay the fines.

The same as in the case of child support, it is "sold" as a violation of a court order to allow the practice. So basically you can continue to sit in jail over and over essentially for the same crime, and for being broke. And as anyone who has sat in jail knows, you can't exactly make money to pay the fines while you are sitting in jail.

This practice to me seems like not only a debtor’s prison but also in a sense like double jeopardy, and more. Moral of the story, don’t come to Michigan. Can you say “revolving door” and/or “prison state”?


I am grteful to all of you for your comments. They have given me insight for filing a case in federal court that may change the way the courts and america deals with this child support issue and throwing the poor in jail for not paying. I agree there are some sorry men out there and something needs to be done. more of our tax money to fund prisons for contractors and lining the pockets of public officials in the legal and judicial industry is not the way either. Some say there is smoke in alabama. Where there is smoke- there may be fire. Keep your eyes open for class action suits.


If you come into my home and steal my tv, you would be convicted of a crime and sent to jail. If you "buy" my tv with a promise to pay me next week, but fail to pay me, it is a "debt" and you never have to pay me. But that's OK? I don't see the difference. Either way, you have my property without paying for it.


They are still putting people in jail in wisconsin for not paying lawyers. They call it contempt of court. They allow the lawyers & judges to delay, post-pone and drag out issues such as child custody and then put the parents in jail for not being able to pay the lawyer fees. My sister was sentenced to 60 days in the LaCrosse County jail for this reason. Ridiculous.


The imprisonment of someone who does not pay child support is not for "debt" but for an "obligation" to take care of their child. If the custodial parent refused to do so, they would lose custody, even if the state had to take custody to keep them from having it. I disagree with imprisoning someone who is unable to pay just as I disagree with paying tax dollars to pay for someone else to take care of a child when the custodial parent (or parents) can not afford to do so. Seems kind of silly to me personally. However, there are many men and women who choose not to pay child support to their previous partner because they see it as paying that person rather than caring for their child. It is a shame that innocent people who are doing their best are punished as well and that should definitely be stopped particularly in light of our countries position that no innocent person should be punished to get to the guilty.


A form of debtor's prison: in Pennsylvania, a parent who falls behind on child support can be imprisoned (at which point he/she loses his/her job and can't pay either the arrears or current amounts).


Our government is on a road to try and imprison as many people as they can. We are going to prison for all sorts of made up laws and set ups by the police. The poor would no doubt all be in prison for not paying debts. However, I think the only reason they haven't started it up yet, is that they need to find loop holes for corporate executives and politicians to get away with not paying their enormous debts.


Current day countries that still have debtors prison. USA.

Florida for example. Greece. UAE. Israel. Dubai.


I am wondering which countries still have designated debtor's prisons?

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