Could Debtors' Prison Make a Comeback?

Last Updated Aug 10, 2009 5:49 PM EDT

When I was laid off last December, my thoughts traveled like a bullet train to a dark future. After I exhausted my severance (which would take about 15 minutes), I would be unable to pay my bills, including my health insurance. Then I would lose my house and all my possessions and have to live under a freeway. (I completely forgot about my savings, but that's what happens to logic in the first terrifying moments after a layoff.) My only consolation was that without the extra funds to underwrite my snack habit, I might lose weight. In any case, I pictured myself huddled near a gas drum fire shivering in a ragged coat desperate for a cup of coffee.

But, horrible as that nightmare was, I never pictured myself going to prison for failure to pay MasterCard or Visa. After all, imprisonment for debt (with some exceptions for fraud and non-payment of alimony and child support) hasn't been around in this country since the 1800s. Before that, debtors who had no assets could be swept into prison even if they owed only pennies. Because authorities refused to pay for food and clothing( as they did for murderers and robbers), debtors languished in deplorable conditions for years. These days, creditors go after any assets you have, and if you have none, they write off the debt and promise themselves to check your credit record more carefully next time around.

However, one judge (at least) in Southern Indiana, decided that debtors' prison needed a comeback. In one case Herman Button, who owed $1,800 to a former landlord but had no assets or income beyond social security, was summoned to court where a moronic judge threatened him with contempt and imprisonment if he did not pay. Here's how it went:
The Court: So we're here today for you to explain what you're going to do to pay this off.
Mr. Button: I can't.
The Court: Okay, but you're going to.
Mr. Button: I can't do it.
The Court: Okay, Mr. Button.
Mr. Button: Yes, Ma'am.
The Court: For some reason we're not communicating. Alright, [sic] you're not hearing me for some reason. I am telling you that, yes, you will. You're going to tell me how you're going to go about doing that. And I'm not going to accept I cannot, and if the next words out of your mouth are I cannot, Mr. Button, then you'll set with Mr. Glenn at the Sheriff's Department until you find a way that, yes, you can. So what kind of payments can you make to pay this down?
Mr. Button: Five dollars ($5.00) a month.

The Court: I'm going to be an old woman before this is ever paid off.

Mr. Button: That's what I can afford, ma'am. I live on social security disability. I've got to pay my rent and my lights and my gas.
The Court: I'm going to order you pay twenty-five dollars ($25.00) a month until this is paid off. I'm going to show that we are to come back March 12, at 1 o'clock, at which time Miss James is going to tell me that she has already received fifty dollars ($50.00) towards this.
Fortunately, this July, the Indiana court of appeals reversed the lower court. Says Katherine J. Rybak, Button's Indiana Legal Services attorney, "They declared that he couldn't be sent to jail on a judgement without any evidence of his ability to pay it. Besides, it violates our state constitution." Now, however, Rybak has another case pending in which a woman was sentenced to jail for 30 days for missing payments on a debt of $110. "She escaped jail only because a complete stranger came up with $100, and somebody else threw in $10," Rybak adds.

At this point it's unlikely that prison is in our future no matter how stretched our finances become. Still, I have to wonder after reading a commentary by Barbara Ehrenreich in the Sunday New York Times about the treatment of the unmonied by police and courts. She points out that while debtors prisons no longer exist, a creditor can petition a court to issue a summons for nonpayment of a bill. If you fail to appear, for one reason or another--and life gets pretty disorganized when you lose your job and possibly your home -- then you're in contempt of court. Next stop, jail.

Where you can run up more debt. An increasing number of prison systems are charging their inmates for room and board, among them, Taney County in Missouri ($45 a night), New Jersey, where fees are under consideration ($10 to $15 a day), and Springfield, Oregon ($60 a day). Nobody knows what happens if an inmate can't pay. I guess authorities will have to issue a warrant for his arrest and put him in jail.
  • Marlys Harris

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