Debtor's prison

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Debtor's prison was the common legal practice in England and in American colonies to imprison persons who failed to pay their debts.

Well into the 18th century, imprisonment for debt was ubiquitous in England and in most of the American Colonies. "At the time of the Revolution, only three of the thirteen colonies ... had laws discharging insolvents of their debts. No two of these relief systems were alike in anything but spirit. In four of the other ten colonies, insolvency legislation was either never enacted or, if enacted, never went into effect, and in the remaining six colonies, full relief was available only for scattered, brief periods, usually on an ad hoc basis to named insolvents."[1]

Under harsh bankruptcy laws' of that era, debtors often fared worse than common criminals in prison. For example, debtors, unlike criminals, were forced to provide their own food, fuel, and clothing while behind bars.[2]

Debtor's prison was not abolished in England until 1869, and then only subject to certain exceptions.[3]

In the United States, the initial bankruptcy and insolvency laws remained as much concerned with ensuring full satisfaction of creditors (and, relatedly, preventing debtors' flight to parts unknown) as with securing new beginnings for debtors. But there were critics of this practice, including Samuel Johnson:[4]

Since poverty is punished among us as a crime, it ought at least to be treated with the same lenity as other crimes: the offender ought not to languish at the will of him whom he has offended, but to be allowed some appeal to the justice of his country. There can be no reason why any debtor should be imprisoned, but that he may be compelled to payment; and a term should therefore be fixed, in which the creditor should exhibit his accusation of concealed property. If such property can be discovered, let it be given to the creditor; if the charge is not offered, or cannot be proved, let the prisoner be dismissed.

Federal debtor's prison was abolished in the United States in 1833 and in various states in a decade or so afterwards.[5][6]


  1. Coleman, Debtors and Creditors in America, at 14.
  2. B. Mann, Republic of Debtors: Bankruptcy in the Age of American Independence 78-108 (2002).
  3. See Debtors Act, 1869, 32 & 33 Vict., ch. 62, § 4; see also Cohen, The History of Imprisonment for Debt and its Relation to the Development of Discharge in Bankruptcy, 3 J. Legal Hist. 153, 164 (1982).
  4. Quotes on Debtor's Prison
  5. Understand the Psychology of Debt Collection Tactics and Avoid Being Manipulated
  6. Citizen Worker: The Experience of Workers in the United States with Democracy and the Free Market During the Nineteenth Century


  • Cent. Va. Cmty. College v. Katz, 546 U.S. 356 (2006)
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