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Debtor’s Prisons

Debtor’s Prisons

Debtor’s prisons existed in America from colonial days until the 1833 federal law abolishing the confinement of debtors. Federal debtor’s prisons may have been abolished in 1833, but they persisted in the states. Persons owing money to the local, state, or national government or to private citizens could be incarcerated to force the indebted to pay what they owed to the debtors. The majority of the inmates in debtor’s prisons owed money to private individuals. Their incarceration served as a persuasive method of collecting debt and as an incentive to others to settle debts. The prisoners lived in the debtor’s prisons and paid for their room, board, and meals from the ‘‘goalers’’ or ‘‘jailers.’’ The term ‘‘goal’’ applied to both prisons pronounced as ‘‘jail,’’ a term used in modern times. These prisons were separate from prisons housing those convicted of crimes.

Many debtor’s prisons grew overcrowded, and disease ran rampant in these unsanitary prisons. Many prisoners could not pay back their debts and relied on friends and relatives to pay what they owed in order to be freed from jail. The practice of using debtor’s prisons stopped as governments and people sought to use other methods of debt collection, such as property confiscation, without resorting to prisons. In modern America, people are still put into prison for nonpayment of alimony, various instances of fraud, refusal to pay child support, and other monetary violations. The debt owed in these cases is substantially higher than that owed by those jailed in colonial years. The system of debtor’s prisons is gone, but the law continues utilizing incarceration as a form of persuasion for debt collection.

JASON M. SOKIERA

References and Further Reading

  • Holton, Woody. Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
  • Rhode, Steve. ‘‘The History of Credit and Debt,’’ http://www. myvesta.org/history/history_debtorprison.htm, (2003).

Published: 12-06-2012, 05:51
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