Recently I read an article regarding a woman who ended up in jail because she did not pay her medical bills. At first glance my thought was, “Here in America?” I thought debtors’ prisons were illegal. After my initial shock, I picked myself off the floor, took a quick shot of Jack and read further. While it is true that an Illinois woman was sent to jail, and that she had indeed not paid her medical bills, that is as far as the truth went. The fact was that she had violated a court order to appear at a hearing on a collection lawsuit. That is what caused her arrest, not the outstanding debt.

Like most media, the article was designed to instill fear into the general public. Pay your debts or go to jail!!!!  The article should have read, “If a Judge orders you to do something, you better do it! Or go to jail” As I continued reading, the article sounded as if people were being jailed for failure to pay their debts. You really had to read between the lines to get at the truth. At best, I found the article to be “misleading”.

But I guess behind all the smoke and mirrors, there is some truth to it. The fact is, if she had paid her medical debt in the first place then there would not have been court action. But another fact lies not far behind that; medical creditors are very…very…very aggressive. In fact, these days, most collection agencies have crossed the line when trying to collect. But I have already written many blogs about these cases. My concern now is if there was a real thinking by our government to return to the days of debtors’ prisons.

So first, a little history of………Debtors’ Prisons

“Debt Bondage” as it was known in ancient Mediterranean societies, was commonplace around 600 B.C. It became so common in fact that there ended up being more slaves than free people. Eventually the practice was banned and the people were freed to return to their homes.

Early in the Roman Empire, a person could actually use himself as collateral for a loan. This contract was know as a “Nexum” If the debt was not paid pursuant to the Nexum, the person would become the lender’s slave. This practice was also eventually outlawed in 326 B.C.

During the Middle Ages, if a debt was not paid a person would be put into prison until the family paid off the debt. Many times both men and women would be locked into a single cell. The conditions were deplorable. Many people died of infections or starvation. If you were one of the  lucky few, the creditor would remove you from prison and enslave you until you worked off the debt.

In Great Britain (and later the United Kingdom), debtors’ prisons were commonplace, but they varied as to the severity. For a little money, as an example, inmates were allowed visitors and even to conduct business. Sometimes prisoners were allowed to live outside the prison in nearby housing. Sometimes a prisoner could even get married while in prison in a practice known as “Fleet Marriages”. While these conditions may not have been as horrifying as the prisons of the Middle Ages, they were still very harsh and difficult. Debtors were sent to prisons and housed with vicious criminals and often confined to a single cell. Many prisons actually charged rent for the cells the prisoners lived in. And even when the original debt had been paid, the prisoners were still kept locked up until they paid their back “rent”. This cycle was so bad that many people ended up with life sentences. Many simply gave up. Suicide was a common occurrence.

Charles Dickens often wrote about conditions of these prisons, as his own father was sent to prison for failure to pay a debt.

But, like so many societies before it, the practice of imprisonment for debt was eventually outlawed by the Debtors’ Act of 1869.

The use of debtors’ prisons in the United States ended in 1833. And while most states followed the federal abolishment, almost a third of states still have imprisonment for unpaid debts on their books. But it is a long forgotten and mostly unused statute.

While debtors’ prisons still existed in the United States, several famous people were actually imprisoned for unpaid debts, including two of the original signors of the Declaration of Independence. That’s right! James Wilson and Robert Morris both signed the Declaration of Independence and both were eventually imprisoned for not paying their debts! Our founding fathers sure were rebels! And how about Light-Horse Harry Lee? Who’s that you ask. Well, he is the father of General Robert E. Lee! Imprisoned from 1808 to 1809.

There are recorded cases that show people imprisoned in the United States, for less than sixty cents worth of debt!!!

In Greece, debtors’ prisons were common until January 2008 when laws enacted declared these types of prisons as unconstitutional. Debts owed to the Government however are a different matter.

In France, laws outlawing debtors’ prisons were enacted in 1976.

In Germany, United Arab Emirates and China, debtors’ prisons are still active. And in many cases in China and United Arab Emirates, they are life sentences!

Currently in the United States, there are six states that still allow debt collectors to seek arrest warrants if all other collection methods have failed. However, whether or not a person is actually prosecuted depends on the state, county and township. Usually in these instances, the debtor is allowed to provide evidence of their financial situation to the court and if deemed appropriate the debt is considered “on hold” until the financial situation of the debtor improves.

Most states, thankfully, have laws on the books that expressly prohibit jailing people over their debts.

Fortunately, we live in a more civilized world than in the past. Prisons today, while still tough and brutal, pale in comparison to the barbarity of our past. And if, in the worst possible scenario, you find yourself faced with the possibility of jail-time over an unpaid debt, don’t forget three simple words that could save you;   Chapter Seven Bankruptcy

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