In For A Penny: Debtors’ Prison In The USA

Debtors; Prison – Anywhere, USA

“A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”

– Mahatma Ghandi
“The measure of a society is found in how they treat their weakest and most helpless citizens.”
– James Earl “Jimmy” Carter, Jr.


I had a different post in mind for this week … until I read about the following news item that just made me sick:

Lisa Lindsay, a breast cancer survivor in Illinois, was arrested for a disputed $280 medical bill, which in fact she was told she did not have to pay. Nevertheless, the bill was turned over to a collection agency, and the next thing she knew, local State Troopers bombarded her home and hauled her off to jail in handcuffs. (Insert painful pregnant pause here) Yes, apparently in the United States of America – the home of the co-called ‘free’, debtors’ prisons, previously abolished in the 1830’s, are making a comeback.

You read this news item (links below) and you get the idea that there has to be more to this story. You get the feeling that the thousands of dollars that went into the arrest of this poor breast cancer survivor, over a billing error, just doesn’t make sense. But it’s true.

Folks, something is very wrong in the United States of America. Something that defies all logic and what might be referred to as ‘humanity’. Something that should be an insult to all … but it’s not. Instead, its ‘business’ as usual. It seems the game of ‘life’ is really just a game of ‘Monopoly’ to the government and Big Business. No money? Go to jail. Go directly to jail. Do not pass go …

The Rise Of Debtors’ Prison 

In a 2010 report titled, In For A Penny: The Rise of America’s New Debtors’ Prisons, published by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), it is suggested that debtors were being rounded up and incarcerated at “increasingly alarming rates” around the country. The report focuses primarily on debt arising from court costs due to incarceration. However, the report also paints another description of the mechanism in which the legal system, in its “zeal to collect funds”, has promoted the reinstitution of what is tantamount to debtors’ prison.

In fact, in one extreme, the report suggests that at “least one Michigan court has gone so far as to jail a mother whose only crime was that she was too poor to pay for her son’s incarceration at a juvenile hall.” Yes, there is something very wrong in the USA, sickeningly so.

The report concludes the following: “The term “debtors’ prison” evokes for many a dark chapter in America’s distant past. The sad truth is that debtors’ prisons are flourishing today, more than two decades after the Supreme Court prohibited imprisoning those who are too poor to pay their legal debts. In this era of shrinking budgets, state and local governments have turned aggressively to using the threat and reality of imprisonment to squeeze revenue out of the poorest defendants who appear in their courts. These modern-day debtors’ prisons impose devastating human costs, waste taxpayer money and resources, undermine our criminal justice system, are racially skewed, and create a two-tiered system of justice.” Yes, there is something very wrong in the USA, disturbingly so.

 Ignorantia legis neminem excusat – Et tu, Brute?

It’s often been said that “ignorance of the law excuses no one”. At least, that’s what the authorities tend to say when it’s to their convenience. Yet, how much effort is put forth by the government into educating citizens about their rights and important legislation?

Obviously, the ‘powers that be’ are more interested in covertly writing and rewriting laws to meet the demands of lobbyists protecting Big Business interests. As usual, its commercial interests that have all the legal knowledge and influence, while Joe Shmoes like you and me are kept in the dark, often intentionally.

Seriously, do you know what your legal rights are concerning debt recovery? Are you familiar with federal, state or possibly even county or city laws in this respect? Excuse me for being presumptuous here, but I’d say most likely not. If we were all a bit more legally savvy, then perhaps our court systems would be less encumbered, costing us millions of dollars in annual taxes. But knowledge is power, and those who have it, don’t want to share it with you.

For example, in many cases arrest warrants are sent out more for failure to answer a summons for a court appearance than for failure to pay the debt itself. The way it works is that debt collection agencies will file a lawsuit against you requiring you to appear in court. Court notices are sent out, many times with erroneous information hastily submitted by collection agencies. When the debtor fails to appear in court, an arrest warrant is issued. This is one reason why ‘Smokey’ might be banging on your door.

What’s most disconcerting is that most debtors are ignorant of their rights, and are often too afraid to dig around for information. Needless to say, debtors most likely lack the funds to seek legal counsel, or to the say the least legal representation. So, out of sheer fright they may even ignore a summons and conflagurate the matter. An article by National Public Radio (NPR) quotes a legal aid attorney who suggests that many judges are unfamiliar with debtors’ rights, resulting in debtors being intimidated into a pay agreement.

The Usual Suspects

So what’s the truth here? Is this a story about Big Business manipulating the authorities to do their bidding? Is this just another example of national interest (paying off its own debt) putting itself ahead of its citizens’ interests? Is this just another example of an American political and judicial system that has its own interpretation of the US Constitution? I think a resounding YES is the answer to all of the above. 

At a time in our nation’s history when the country’s ‘tired, poor, wretched refuse, and huddled masses yearning to breathe free’ are considering breaking laws just to get free medical care in prison, one would think the government, and all the usual suspects, would be rethinking this whole social and political mess. But then again, the hands that feed Washington D.C. are most certainly not those like Lisa Lindsay’s – or yours or mine for that matter!    

3 thoughts on “In For A Penny: Debtors’ Prison In The USA

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