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Debtors Prison

July 31, 2016

Remaining gates at Marshalsea Debtors Prison, London, Author Russell Kenny, Source   (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)

At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release of debts” (Deut. 15: 1).

The Israelites were directed to forgive debts every seventh year to reflect God’s forgiveness of sin and avoid the development of a permanent debtor class.  Debtors prisons, however, existed in England as late as the 19th Century [1].

Men and women owing money could be imprisoned at the discretion of their creditors, until those debts were paid.  Unlike other European nations, England placed no time limit on such imprisonment which might last for decades.  That often meant entire families lived in prison, actually raising children there for lack of a viable alternative.

Since English prisons were privately run, prisoners were charged for rent, food, and clothing.  The charges were simply added to their existing debts.  Many debtors never regained their freedom.

Debtors Prison Today

And forgive us our debts, As we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6: 12).

Though debtors prisons have been outlawed for some 200 years in the United States, they exist today.

The Supreme Court in Bearden v. Georgia made clear that those too poor to pay court fines could not be imprisoned for their failure to do so.  The 1983 decision stated that a judge first had to determine if a defendant had the ability to pay, so that the refusal to pay was willful.

Unfortunately, there was no test established for this.  Standards now vary widely.  According to an investigation by NPR:

“Judges say it’s difficult to determine who can and cannot afford to pay their fines and fees. Often a probation officer or a court official will make a recommendation based on an interview with the defendant or based on a questionnaire.

Some judges will tell an offender to give up their phone service, or quit smoking cigarettes — and use the money instead to pay court debt.

Some judges will tell people to get the money from family members or to use Temporary Aid to Needy Family checks, Social Security disability income, veterans’ benefits or other welfare checks to pay their court fees first — or else face going to jail [2].”

Alabama Circuit Judge Marvin Wiggins actually offered debtors the choice of giving blood or going to jail for their inability to pay fines [3].  This is not a rare occurrence.  Debtors prisons have sprung up across the South, in the wake of Bearden.

Hundreds of cities contract with collection agencies to pursue traffic fines (plus a fee for their services).  Defendants unable to pay are threatened with jail.  When they still cannot make timely payments, the poor are ruled in violation of probation and imprisoned.  This can easily cost them the meager jobs keeping their families afloat.

Most of us will not face this dilemma.  That is no reason to ignore the obvious injustice.  We are responsible for what is done in our name.

Christians, of all people, should understand the forgiveness of debt.  Christ told the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.  The servant whose own debt was forgiven him threw a fellow servant into debtors prison over a far lesser sum.  The consequences were severe.

Then his master…said to him, ‘You wicked servant!  I forgave you all that debt because you begged me.  Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ ” (Matt. 18: 32-33).

[1]  London Lives 1690-1800:  Crime, Poverty, and Social Policy in the Metropolis, Historical Background, Criminal Justice, Prisons and Lockups,

[2]  NPR, “Supreme Court Ruling Not Enough to Prevent Debtors Prisons” by Joseph Shapiro, 5/21/14,

[3]  ABC 7/Eyewitness News Chicago, “Alabama Judge:  Give Blood or Go to Jail”, 10/21/15,

Our prayers go out to the family and parishioners of Fr. Jacques Hamel, martyred by ISIS in Paris this week


  1. Monochrome nightmares permalink

    Hi Anna.

    Thankfully, as you rightly say, we no longer
    have debtors prisons in England.

    But to think after 200 years, debtors prisons
    have returned to the USA, is unbelievable
    in this day and age.

    • Particularly striking when you recall that Wall Street titans emerged from the Great Recession they caused virtually unscathed. So much for accountability.

  2. The spectrum of injustice ever widens before my eyes, Anna–I’m very grateful to you for enhancing my education. I can’t imagine what it must be like to “pay and pay and pay” on top of whatever you’ve already suffered that brought you into the court system. And the option to “give blood” distresses me, mostly because there may not be a fool-proof way of ascertaining whether a person’s blood is not contaminated, and perhaps a danger to recipients… oh goodness, the list of needs to pray about grows, doesn’t it. God bless you abundantly this week, and always 🙂

  3. Thank you Anna for this informative yet shocking article. You’re right we truly need compassion.

  4. Great post! I learned about debtors prisons from Charles Dickens, but did not know America was following suit.. It is sad that the haves lend little help to the have not’s..

    • Glad you liked the post! Yes, Dickens wrote powerfully about injustice. Sadly, the gap between rich and poor in America is widening.

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