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Cartoon of people holding a “help wanted” ad and a paper that says “fired.” Joyce Rice

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How an unpaid bill can lead to prison

Debtors’ prison might sound arcane. But this comic explains how it exists under a certain guise in America today.

The idea of a debtors’ prison might sound like a cruel relic out of a Charles Dickens novel. Little Dorrit, for instance, is the story of a girl born in prison while her father does time for unpaid debts. 
But many would be surprised to learn that forms of debt imprisonment are in use in America today. While debtors’ prisons don’t officially exist, debt collectors use the court system to jail thousands of debtors each year. Debt is an economic reality. The average American has about $6,000 in credit card debt, and almost a third of Americans have medical debt.
Debtors’ prisons have long been considered an outmoded punishment. Congress abolished them in 1833, and the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled people cannot be jailed for debts they cannot repay.
Despite this, imprisoning debtors is common enough that advocates still refer to it as “debtors’ prison.” In Dickens’s day, an unpaid debt was simply a crime. Now, debt leads a more circuitous route to prison.
The resurgence of debt imprisonment accompanied the rise of American mass incarceration. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson launched a “War on Crime.” The prison population skyrocketed.
Imprisonment is about more than just jail time. In the US, many incarcerated people lose voting rights and job opportunities. Their families are put through extreme duress.
One thing remains the same as in Dickens’s day, though: Once you enter the debt-to-prison pipeline, there is no easy way to escape. The pipeline can open with any unpaid debt. Rent, credit cards, auto loans, medical bills, student loans — any debt will do. The real trouble begins when the debt is sold to a private collection agency. Debt collection is a huge industry. One out of every three American adults is currently being pursued by a debt collector.
Collection agencies file millions of lawsuits every year. According to the Federal Trade Commission, debt collection cases make up a majority of many states’ court cases.
These courts are an uneven playing field. Debtors are represented by lawyers in just 2 percent of cases. Debtors often never even receive notice of the case — and miss their court dates.
When a party fails to appear, judges generally grant an automatic default judgment, a total victory for whichever side was in court. Debt collectors win 95 percent of these cases.
Many debt-collection agencies will then ask the judge to order the debtor to appear at a post-judgment examination. If the debtor misses it, judges may issue an arrest warrant. Forty-four states explicitly authorize these sorts of warrants.
Suddenly, an unpaid debt, even something as simple as a $300 medical bill, can put a person in the debt-to-prison pipeline. For thousands of Americans every year, this turns a slight brush with the criminal justice system into jail time.
“Am I really here because I couldn’t pay a $300 doctor’s bill? I was hurt and couldn’t work!”
Racism plays a huge role in who is imprisoned in America. As legal scholar Michelle Alexander explains, mass incarceration, Jim Crow laws, and slavery are “the three major racialized systems of control adopted in the United States.”
Viewed through the lens of race, debtors’ prisons begin to make more sense. The average white family has 10 times more wealth than the average Black family. Poverty is a potent attack vector for criminalizing Black Americans. In impoverished (and often over-policed) communities, these arrest warrants are pervasive. States do not track the numbers, but investigations invariably turn up thousands of these cases. In 2014, Ferguson, Missouri, averaged 3 arrest warrants per household.
Adding insult to injury, many states make their prisoners pay fees: court fees, room-and-board fees, probation fees, parole fees, drug-testing fees. The ability to fight back is virtually nonexistent. The debt continues to pile up.
Private probation companies can be especially predatory. Their business is a volume business: The more probation people have to complete, the more money they make.
Many people wind up back in jail because they cannot afford these fees. “I lost my job because I’m in here again. I am never gonna get ahead.”
These prison debts are used as a cudgel. Florida currently denies voting rights to almost a million people over unpaid prison fees. California suspended 4.2 million drivers’ licenses over unpaid court debts.
Take cash bail. At any given time, approximately 500,000 Americans are in jail awaiting trial. 83% are stuck there because they can’t afford cash bail, often set at exorbitant sums.
They remain in jail simply because they can’t pay — much like those in debt.
Americans are conditioned to feel deep shame around debt. Many view debt as a choice. But in a country where three out of four of us die in debt, is it really? When the debt is incurred from an emergency doctor visit, was it really a choice?
Perhaps the greatest irony of debtors’ prisons is that there is an inverse relationship between time spent in prison and the ability to pay off a debt. If the goal is fewer unpaid debts, jailing people seems like the worst possible solution.
So what can the United States do to break the debt cycle? “[T]here seems to be a lack of appreciation for the enormity of the crisis at hand.” -Michelle Alexander
Prohibit the use of arrest warrants in debt collection cases: Prison should not be a tool in the creditor’s arsenal.
Eliminate cash bail: Locking someone up is a question of public safety, not the ability to pay an arbitrary sum of money.
Too many criminal justice “reformers” actually strengthen prisons by allocating additional funds for reform.Charles Dickens visited several US prisons and was horrified by some of their practices. Nearly two centuries later, Americans are still staring down the same problems. Unwinding the country’s debtors’ prisons is surely part of the solution.


A Pound of Flesh: The Criminalization of Private Debt, ACLU

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander

Debt: The First 5,000 Years, David Graeber

Usual Cruelty: The Complicity of Lawyers in the Criminal Injustice System, Alec Karakatsanis

“In jail for being in debt,” Star Tribune

“When Falling Behind on Rent Leads to Jail Time,” ProPublica

“Debtors’ Prisons, Then and Now: FAQ,” The Marshall Project

Joyce Rice is a cartoonist, news designer, and professor making comics about history, technology, and the future. Her work has appeared in Vox, The Nib, PBS and other outlets.

Kevin Moore is a writer, programmer, and progressive activist. He has worked in the debt field for years, first as a federal bankruptcy court law clerk and later as the founding CTO of Upsolve.

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