A debtor’s prison was a place where people were incarcerated for, you guessed it, not being able to pay their debts/rents/taxes/etc.

The principle of a debtor’s prison can be traced to England. In 1601, The Poor Law was enacted that basically assigned the responsibility of the poor to local parishes. In order to accommodate the growing number of poor, the parishes built workhouses to employ them on a profitable basis. Sounded like a good idea at the time but it didn’t take long for the workhouses to absorb every type of person that was charged with a crime. The workhouses soon were overcrowded and conditions had deteriorated along with the growing workhouse population.

Along came the Poor Law Amendment of 1834 which attempted to standardize the treatment of the poor throughout England. The local parishes were grouped into unions and these unions assumed responsibilities for the workhouses. The law also provided that no relief could be given to any able-bodied persons in their own homes. Any person that had their own home and was seeking relief had to live in the workhouse. Conditions remained harsh and degrading. For the best description of these conditions I recommend Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. It describes his own experience in a debtors prison as a child. It wasn’t until the latter part of the 19th century that true reform had begun. By the first half of the 20th century, social welfare services and programs were put in place that eventually replaced the workhouse system.

On a side note, and, maybe this deserves a separate node but this is what the eminent Samuel Johnson had to say regarding the subject of debtor’s prisons. All are excerpts from the Johnson Idler #22 from September 16, 1758. In my ever so humble opinion and probably because I’m up to my ears in debt, the sentiments ring true. Without further ado…

Debtor’s Prison

“The confinement… of any man in the sloth and darkness of a prison, is a loss to the nation, and no gain to the creditor. For, of the multitudes who are pining in those cells of misery, a very small part is suspected of any fraudulent act by which they retain what belongs to others. The rest are imprisoned by the wantonness of pride, the malignity of revenge, or the acrimony of disappointed expectation.”

“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 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 manner 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.”

”It is vain to continue an institution which experience shows to be ineffectual. We have now imprisoned one generation of debtors after another, but we do not find that their numbers lessen. We have now learned, that rashness and imprudence will not be deterred from taking credit: let us try whether fraud and avarice may be more easily restrained from giving it.”

On the subject of bankruptcy and debtor’s prison – Johnson had this to say.

“Those who made the laws have apparently supposed, that every deficiency of payment is a crime of the debtor. But the truth is, that the creditor always shares the act, and often more than shares the guilt, of improper trust. It seldom happens that any man imprisons another but for debts which he suffered to be contracted in hope of advantage to himself, and for bargains in which proportioned his own profit to his own opinion of the hazard: and there is no reason, why one should punish the other for a contract in which both concurred.”