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Debtors' Prison in the West?

posted by Jason Kilborn

DebtorprisonI've been corresponding with an analyst in a country that still jails people for unpaid general debts. The question posed to me, and which I pose to Credit Slips readers, is "can I find statistics of similar imprisonment for debt in Western countries like the US, Canada, and Europe?"

Now we're not looking for accounts of imprisonment for failure to pay specific debts like child support, or for contempt for failure to respond to a judgment debtor examination bench warrant--this is a related but different problem, which has been the subject of a great FTC report. And we're not looking for stories of indigent inmates being re-imprisoned for unpaid criminal fines and "user fees," another problem which has also been the subject of several shocking ACLU reports. And we're not looking for references to rogue judges who violate their citizens' constitutional rights to freedom from imprisonment for debt, though again, we know such problems exist in the US and elsewhere.

The question concerns only standard imprisonment for general debt. My strong sense is that no such statistics exist because no Western country does such things any longer. I hope no one can point out that I'm wrong, but if so, please do let me know in the comments.

On a related note, if anyone knows of statistics on revocation/suspension of driver's licenses (and the like) for failure to pay general debt (again, not for specific debts, like child support, parking or speeding fines), I'd love to hear about that, as well.


Imprisonment photo courtesy of Shutterstock


There's an indirect "suspension" of driving privileges since auto insurance rates are based to some extent on the customer's credit rating, which will tend to decline with unpaid debts. There are similar issues with employers checking a job applicant's credit report.

Not as extreme as imprisonment, and not directly due to debt (but instead the consequences).

I do not think you will find any. Prison for unpaid debts is nowhere to be found in EU countries (absent fraudulent schemes-hiding assets, etc.). However, you may find information concerning developing countries. In some African and East Asian nations, prison is treated as the most effective mechanism of debt collection. In one big East African nation, for example, preventive prison for unpaid debts during 1 or 2 months (I can´t remember exactly) is quite common. It is used to pressure the debtor to produce the hidden assets. In a South Asian state, the system of debt collection and enforcement of security rights is so deficient that banks prefer to document loans thru cheques, merely because not honoring a cheque implies prison.

Would you count being placed on a no-fly list as a form of imprisonment? I wonder if anybody ever gets no-flied for debt.

I was imprisoned for 42 days by the Honorable Henry Jack. Boroff from the Massachusetts Bankruptcy Court as a pro se unsecured creditor in a Chapter 11 case for being unable to pay $4,000 as a lump sum for contempt of court sanctions for accusing estate counsel of fraud for overstating the dividend and not disclosing their extensive fees at the sale hearing.

I was earning $100 a day at the time plowing wheat fields on the High Plains and asked for a payment schedule reflecting my economic conditions.

The good judge Boroff told me to sell my rather worthless vehicles to raise the money and sent me to federal prison (detention center) where I couldn’t find a buyer.

Two weeks after the incarceration judge Boroff summonsed me back to see if I had sold my vehicles.

“No”, I said.

Then back to jail for four more weeks.

42 day into the incarceration he summonsed me again.

The trustee told the judge I must want to stay in prison because I had not sold my cars.

The judge and trustee paused for a conference.

“Mr. White” the judge said “the trustee will accept title to your vehicles as payment of your sanctions. You will be released when the DMV sends us marketable title.”

I said, “Do you mean I get out of jail in a couple of months after the DMV process the pink slip - is that it?”

“Yes” the judge said.

“No thanks” I said.

“Then back to jail” the judge said.

And off to the transport van the Marshall and I went.

Pulling out of the courthouse garage another Marshall ran in front of the van to stop our get-away to usher me back up to court for another deal.

I’m only 99% percent sure that the District Court judge was reviewing my Writ of Habeas Corpus that I filed the day I was incarcerated and that judge must have thought 42 days in prison was enough for an Oka-billy plow boy who couldn’t pay a $4,000 sanction, so he recommended I should be set free if I signed over title, which I did.

Later, while on appeal of those sanctions, the Bankruptcy Court purged me of contempt and ordered estate counsel to pay my sanctions instead, thus mooting my appeal in the First Circuit.

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