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Our Future In Chains: The Debtors Prison System Returns

Michael Edwards Activist Post

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April 23, 2012

The recent story of breast cancer survivor Lisa Lindsay being thrown in prison for a $280 medical bill that was sent in error has thankfully gone viral.  It has brought much-needed attention to the insanity of reinstating the concept of debtors prisons.    

Debtors prisons have a sordid history that was thought to be best left behind in Medieval Europe and in Charles Dickens' fictionalized accounts of the 19th-century hellholes of Victorian England.  

America was not to be outdone, however, debtors prisons were widespread in the United States as well, and stories of the conditions in New York's debtors prisons could make one question if repayment of debts was really the purpose; violent criminals were much better clothed and fed.  In fact, history shows that terror and slavery have always had a close relationship with debt, and it follows a path from the Romans right through to 17th-century England, and into America from English common law.  However, America chose to abolish her debtors prisons a full 36 years before England; first in New York in 1831, and by 1833 the rest of the America had followed.(1) 

Now, debtors prisons seem to be making a comeback in America.  

An article in the Star Tribune in Minnesota titled, "In jail for being in debt," exposes the growing number of citizens going to jail at the behest of banks and a welcoming judicial system.  They write:

It's not a crime to owe money, and debtors' prisons were abolished in the United States in the 19th century. But people are routinely being thrown in jail for failing to pay debts. In Minnesota, which has some of the most creditor-friendly laws in the country, the use of arrest warrants against debtors has jumped 60 percent over the past four years, with 845 cases in 2009, a Star Tribune analysis of state court data has found.

In our modern era of debt servitude, a PR Push has been designed to reintroduce a serious discussion of debtors' prisons as a sound solution.  What goes beyond alarming is that the full-fledged return of debtors prisons might be seen as both appropriately terrifying, as well as a profitable investment opportunity and politically sound decision to be made by state governments struggling with their own looming bankruptcies, and a Federal government struggling politically with the concept of a jobless recovery that is not materializing.  

A de facto debtors prison has already been largely accepted in the case of "deadbeat" parents when a failure to pay child support puts them in civil contempt of court.  It is this civil contempt charge that is now beginning to take on an expanded definition to include those who owe for much smaller infractions.  When a court order to pay a debt is issued and ignored, it then qualifies as a civil contempt of court.  At that point, the judge becomes a literal dictator with the ability to imprison a person indefinitely for the violation.  The Constitution explicitly prohibits incarceration for failure to pay debts, but it is the violation of a court order that gives judges free rein to impose draconian punishments.  In this way, an end-run around the Constitution can become frighteningly commonplace.(2)
America already has a record-high ratio of people in prison, with no signs of the trend reversing as private corporations like Wackenhut Corporation, referred to as a "Free Market in Human Misery," have long been enlisted to turn government directives into shareholder profit.  One might even deign to call it blatant fascism in its purest form, as government legislation leads offenders directly into private company coffers.   The prison-industrial complex has already capitalized on government actions like The War on Drugs.  A prime example is how The California Correctional Peace Officers Association helped fuel the prison-building boom as a cozy relationship was established on Capitol Hill through influence peddling.(3) 
Profiting from the suffering of the poor while bailouts and bonuses await the over-leveraged banksters, car companies, and state governments, sets up a prison-industrial complex with a class warfare component that is the domestic mirror of the military-industrial complex sent abroad.  This domestic prison system seems to be the only industry left to build upon, and it is here that things become truly frightening.  For the federally-owned prison system complex, Federal Prison Industries (UNICOR), more incarceration means a growing supply of cheap labor and a skewing of unemployment numbers, as these inmates are often doing jobs they couldn't even find if they were job hunting on the outside.  But it is the private prison system, with its web fully woven throughout the U.S. government, that stands to profit the most from the return of debtors' admission.(4) 
The largest private prison conglomerate in the U.S. is Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which controls more than 47% of all private prison and jail beds nationwide and is able to produce a 13-15% return annually on new real estate investments.  Wackenhut (now subsumed into G4S, the largest security company in the world) was of course started by an FBI agent, George Wackenhut, who is famous for developing millions of dossiers on America's "potential subversives" in the sixties, and was exposed as being an integral player within the shadow CIA.(5) 
These major security conglomerates are at the top of a growing pyramid of for-profit, international detention center operators that has Wall Street giants like Goldman Sachs simply fawning over the solid, long-term investment potential.  Similar to war, when there is a profit to be made off of incarceration, only more incarceration can be expected to follow.  The U.S. government certainly seems to be working hard to ensure that the numbers of poor continue to increase, as they are well aware that that programs designed to help the downtrodden are an abject failure every time.

The massive government debts that must be repaid directly into the hands of the Federal Reserve-led banking cabal must lead us to an inescapable conclusion:  More money is to be made from slavery in the United States, than from freedom.

Other Articles Cited
1. Jill Lepore, "I.O.U. - How We Used to Treat Our Debtors," The New Yorker (April 13, 2009): 35.
2. Wendy McElroy,
3. Seth Sandronsky,
4. Christian Parenti,

5. John Connolly, "Inside the Shadow CIA," SPY Magazine (September, 1992): Volume 6.