Citizens Jailed for Owing Debt

If it is “class warfare” when someone says something unfavorable about the super rich, what is it called when the state illegally imprisons impoverished citizens for owing petty debts?

Debtor’s prisons were a sad reality for impoverished people in the United States until the government banned such institutions in 1833. Nonetheless, over 1/3 of states have since found a loophole to put their debtors in prison anyway. Since the law does not permit arresting people for not paying bills, debt collectors instead file lawsuits and pursue those who fail to pay legal fines or do not show up for court hearings. Furthermore, because collection agencies’ paperwork and notification systems are notoriously shoddy, many debtors are not even aware that they are being incompliant until they are arrested.

Such is the case for Lisa Lindsay, a breast cancer survivor, who found herself in jail after receiving an erroneous medical bill for $280. After being assured that she did not actually owe money, she ignored the payment requests. Alas, the false bill still managed to somehow make its way to a collection agency, and police handcuffed her at her home and took her to jail.

This incident occurred in Illinois, a state that may have the most egregious examples of debtor abuse. Collection agencies frequently partner with law enforcement officers to coax people to pay their debts (even minor amounts in many cases) or face the threat of jail. In many cases, the police do not have the legal right to take such extreme steps against debtors, but seem to be unaware of this fact.

Fortunately, having noticed that these sorts of arrests are becoming increasingly commonplace, the Illinois House of Representatives passed a bill last month to forbid sending people to jail simply for falling into debt. Although the state senate must still pass the measure to put it into effect, Attorney General Lisa Madigan is in favor of the move. “Creditors have been manipulating the court system to extract money from the unemployed, veterans, even seniors who rely solely on their benefits to get by each month. Too many people have been thrown in jail simply because they’re too poor to pay their debts. We cannot allow these illegal abuses to continue.”

However, Illinois is not the only state dealing with this problem. Several states go so far as to permit collection agencies to add supplemental fees and interest to debtors. For example, collectors in Florida can tack on a 40% surcharge to late debtors. Naturally, this extra fee makes it even harder for debtors to pay off what they owe.

Moreover, while in prison, people are unable to earn money to pay off their debts, therefore compounding their problems. Experts argue that the extreme measures taken to intimidate people with small outstanding debts ultimately cost taxpayers the most money. After acquiring a criminal record, the debtors have an even more difficult time securing housing and employment as well as taking care of their children, so that burden often forces them into state welfare programs.

Addressing this situation, the ACLU said, “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.”


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Photo Credit: Tim Pearce


Emma S.
Emma S.1 years ago

This article has some vast and valuable information about this subject. national criminal background check

Will Rogers
Will Rogers5 years ago

And yet they reward banks for doing the same thing!

How to rescue the economy:
Patriotic retirement:
There are about 40 million people over 50 in the work force;
pay them $1 million a piece severance with stipulations:
1) They leave their jobs. Forty million job openings - Unemployment fixed.
2) They buy NEW American cars. Forty million cars ordered - Auto Industry fixed.
3) They either buy a house or pay off their mortgage- Housing Crisis fixed.
All this and it's still cheaper than the "bailout".

Diane L.
Diane L6 years ago

Yes, Jane R., you're absolutely correct. They even addressed this on the news and Nightline the other night because there is scam going around where people are getting phone calls harrassing them about debts they don't even owe, threatening to send them to jail and these people are PAYING UP because they're scared of the threats they're getting. One man sent $1800 to get the debt collector off his back and the calls just kept coming. They're originating in India.

Jane R.
Jane R6 years ago

I think this is false information. No one goes to jail these days for not being able to pay a small debt or even a large debt. You will be hounded by collection agencies day and night but that's all they can do to you. Do you know that if you tell them to stop contacting you, they are breaking the law if they ever do it again? Take down the name of the person calling, log the date and time they called and the phone number they called from. You can sue them if they don't stop calling. This is the Law!!!!!

Nancy L.
Nancy L6 years ago

Thanks for posting.

Diane L.
Diane L6 years ago

This was the subject of a coupe of other discussions in Care.2. Not a single one shows details, and I'm betting there are a lot of them we're not being told. I'm betting that the debtor did something in court, pissed off a judge and got thrown in for contempt, but then who is going to say that a Care.2 writer could possibly misrepresent factss?

It's always more entertaining reading and encites more emotions to stir up the masses by suggestion social injustice and civil rights violations. Personally, before commenting on how terrible this is, I'd like to hear the other side of the story.

Mark Donners
Mark Donner6 years ago

There should be one thing made clear to the duped American public. The US is NOT "free"and is NOT a "democracy", in any sense of the word. The government of the US is mostly criminal and wants to model itself after Communist China and has succeeded way beyond that.

Mary B.
Mary B6 years ago

The people who dig up these archaic notions, and get them put into place are insane! Why are we letting insane people run things? They need to be removed from office NOW and given what ever kind of phycho therapy is needed to get them up to a reasonable functioning level. But never again be allowed into public office or any office that requires a ligh level of trust. They simply are not capable of understanding cause and effect. Put people in jail for not paying their debts, where they have no chance of paying their debts, because they were too poor to pay their debts. Right.

DeAnna Collins
DeAnna Collins6 years ago

This world is so hungry for money it makes me sick.

Ernest R.
Ernest R6 years ago

In High School they told me that debtors prisons had been abo;ished because the prisoner would then have no ability to ever pay his debt. I didn’r know that had been changed. That was in the land of the free, right ? Have the child labor laws also been repealed ? That would get the economy moving with low profit companies able to hire slaves again.