Debtors' prison  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

A debtor's prison is a prison for those who are unable to pay a debt.

Prior to the mid 19th century debtors' prisons were a common way to deal with unpaid debt. Currently, the practice of giving prison sentences for unpaid debts has been mostly eliminated, with a few exceptions such as inability to pay child support and certain taxes, and some specific countries, such as the United Arab Emirates.


By region

Medieval Europe

During Europe's Middle Ages, debtors, both men and women, were locked up together in a single large cell, until their families paid their debt. Debt prisoners often died of disease contracted from other debt prisoners. Conditions included starvation and abuse from other prisoners. If the father of a family was imprisoned for debt, the family business often suffered while the mother and children fell into poverty. Unable to pay the debt, the father often remained in debtors' prison for many years. Some debt prisoners were released to become serfs or indentured servants (debt bondage) until they paid off their debt in labor.

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, debtors' prisons varied in the amount of freedom they allowed the debtor. With a little money, a debtor could pay for some freedoms; some allowed inmates to conduct business and receive visitors; others (for example, the Fleet and King's Bench Prisons) even allowed inmates to live a short distance outside the prison — a practice known as the 'Liberty of the Rules' — and the Fleet even tolerated clandestine 'Fleet Marriages'.

Life in these prisons, however, was far from pleasant and the inmates were forced to pay for their keep. Samuel Byrom, son of writer and poet, John Byrom, was imprisoned for debt in Fleet Prison in 1725, and in 1729 he sent a petition to his old school friend, The Duke of Dorset, in which raged against the injustices of the system:

What barbarity can be greater than for gaolers (without provocation) to load prisoners with irons, and thrust them into dungeons, and manacle them, and deny their friends to visit them, and force them to pay excessive fines for their chamber rent, their victuals and drinks; to open their letters and seize the charity that is sent to them! And when debtors have succedd in arranging with their creditors, hundreds are detained in prison for chamber-rent and other unjust demands put forward by their gaolers, so that at last, in their despair, many are driven to commit suicide...gaolers should be paid a fixed salary and forbidden, under pain of instant dismissal, to accept bribe, fee or reward of any of imprisonment for debts influicts a greater loss on the country, in the way of wasted power and energies, than do monasteries and nunneries in foreign lands, and among Roman-Catholic peoples...Holland, the most unpolite country in the world, uses debors with mildness and malefactors with rigour; England, on the other hand, shows mercy to muderers and robbers, but of poor debtors impossibilities are demanded...Manchester Times 22 October 1862

Some debtors prisoners were even less fortunate, being sent to prisons with a mix of vicious criminals and petty criminals, and many more were confined to a single cell.

The father of the English author Charles Dickens was sent to one of these prisons (Marshalsea Prison), which were often described in Dickens' novels.

The Debtors Act 1869 abolished imprisonment for debt, although debtors who had the means to pay their debt, but did not do so, could still be incarcerated for up to six weeks.

Notable London debtors' prisons


United States

In 1833 the United States abolished Federal imprisonment for unpaid debts, and most states outlawed the practice around the same time.

Before then, the use of debtor's prisons was widespread; signatories to the Declaration of Independence, James Wilson & Robert Morris were both later incarcerated, as were 2,000 New Yorkers annually by 1816. Sometimes, imprisonment would result from less than sixty-cents worth of debt.

It is still possible to be incarcerated for debt, though this may be unconstitutional unless the court finds that the debtor actually possesses the means to pay.

The constitutions of the U.S. states of Tennessee and Oklahoma forbid civil imprisonment for debts.

Notable previous Virginia debtors' prisons



Ιmprisonment for debts, whether to the tax office or to private banks, was still practiced until January 2008, when the law changed after imprisonment for unpaid taxes or other debts to the government or to the social security office was declared unconstitutional after being practised for 173 years, but still retained imprisonment for debts to private banks.Template:Clarify However, the situation regarding imprisonment (προσωποκράτηση) for debts to the government is still unclear, as courts continue to have this ability for criminal acts.

United Arab Emirates

Debtors in the United Arab Emirates, including Dubai, can be imprisoned for failing to pay their debts.


While Hong kong has long imprisoned debtors, the first mainland prison sentence for unpaid debts was handed down in 2008. Life imprisonment is possible for non-repayment of debts incurred with "malicious intent".

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Debtors' prison" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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