“Cruel Country: Debtors Prisons Are Punishing the Poor Across America” – AlterNet

A 19th century tool for instilling fear in the public to pay off debt.

Debtors prison

“‘In the 1990s, Jack [Dawley’s] drug and alcohol addictions led to convictions for domestic violence and driving under the influence, resulting in nearly $1,500 in fines and costs in the Norwalk Municipal Court. Jack was also behind on his child support, which led to an out-of-state jail sentence.’ After serving three and a half years in Wisconsin, Dawley, now sober for 14 years, is still trying to catch up with the fines he owes, and it has ‘continue[d] to wreak havoc on his life.’

“Tricia Metcalf is a mother with sole custody of two teenagers. In 2006, Metcalf ‘was convicted of passing multiple bad checks. The fines mounted into the thousands. Unable to pay the total amount owed, Tricia entered into a payment plan of $50 per month.’ Although she’s worked temporary jobs, a long-term job has been hard to find. ‘Whenever Tricia missed a payment, a warrant was issued and she was taken to jail.’

“The stories of Jack Dawley and Tricia Metcalf are only two of several compelling accounts in the ACLU’s new report,  The Outskirts of Hope: How Ohio’s Debtors’ Prisons Are Ruining Lives and Costing Communities.

“The jailing of people unable to pay fines and court costs is no longer a relic of the 19th century American judicial system. Debtors’ prisons are alive and well in one-third of the states in this country.

“In 2011, Think Progress’ Marie Diamond wrote: ‘Federal imprisonment for unpaid debt has been illegal in the U.S. since 1833. It’s a practice people associate more with the age of Dickens than modern-day America. But as more Americans struggle to pay their bills in the wake of the recession, collection agencies are using harsher methods to get their money, ushering in the return of debtor’s prisons.’”

To read this AlterNet article in its entirety, click here.


  1. The problem I have with this is that these two examples were not ‘victims’ of a downsized economy, but were perpetrators of their own misfortune. Don’t try to invite me to a pity party for someone who deliberately passes bad checks or skips out on child support.

  2. We do not disagree with you, llaskoske. Our point in republishing this opinion column was to share a position. It’s just seems that bankers, politicians, entertainment personalities, mortgage lenders and other wealthy, high-profile offenders and law-breakers don’t share the same fates as the folks in the article. Often, it seems easier to pick on the “low-hanging fruit” or those without money; those who are powerless.




  3. Here’s another instance of the inequity is from this article in today’s Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era: http://lancasteronline.com/article/local/848125_Former-Lititz-man-jailed-for-swindling-21-in-real-estate-scams.html

    This bozo gets to “pay back his theft” and go to jail for five years (he’ll be out in a lot less). Oh, yeah, he used the stolen funds for important stuff: He “Kelly spent the funds on “personal purposes,” according to the indictment. These included a dating service, shoes, clothing, restaurants, groceries and iTunes, prosecutors said.”

    All the earmarks of a local instance in which a trusted employee stole a huge chunk of change from a fire company and gets to pay it back at $50 a month. It takes 166+ years to pay back $100K at $50 a month. Longer for $175 K.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s