Bring Back the Debtors’ Prison! Take Me I’m Yours

by Michelle Crouch

It was an oblong pile of barrack building, partitioned into squalid houses standing back to back, so that there were no back rooms; environed by a narrow paved yard, hemmed in by high walls duly spiked at top. Itself a close and confined prison for debtors, it contained within it a much closer and more confined jail for smugglers. Offenders against the revenue laws, and defaulters to excise or customs who had incurred fines which they were unable to pay, were supposed to be incarcerated behind an iron-plated door closing up a second prison, consisting of a strong cell or two, and a blind alley some yard and a half wide, which formed the mysterious termination of the very limited skittle-ground in which the Marshalsea debtors bowled down their troubles.

— Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit

There doesn’t seem to be as much cultural nostalgia for debtors’ prison as for other 19th century phenomena like absurd facial hair, backyard chickens, and churning your own artisanal butter. But allow me to defend a modest proposal: We should bring debtors’ prison back.

A new craze for voluntary imprisonment could solve our nation’s Student Debt Crisis woes, if we could just convince people what a great idea it is. I don’t think it’d be hard — even the names of British jails of Dickens’ day sound cool! Marshalsea, the Clink, the Fleet, the White Lion — somewhere between an inn from Game of Thrones and a ’60s garage band, very on-trend.

Like many people my age, I have a lot of student loans, let’s say roughly a mid-five-digit number. All federal, and all my own damn fault. I’m not asking for sympathy; it doesn’t matter how we got here, we’re here now. A couple of weeks ago I tried to set up a repayment plan on with what I thought was a reasonable amount per month: $450.

Error: It will take longer than 50 years to repay this debt. Please increase your monthly contribution.

I tried again: $666. Nope.

Considering the fact that I will likely still be paying off my education when I’m 80 (maybe later if the interest rates go up on July 1), considering that I can’t discharge these loans in bankruptcy, considering that my offers to let the government repossess my brain/diploma have been ignored, sometimes I can’t help but fantasize: if only I could sign myself up for five years in a minimum security facility, banging out license plates 8 hours a day, and have it all erased! Then maybe I could possibly own a house before I die or have a kid before I hit menopause.

Surely I am not in alone in this. In a recent poll conducted over half-price margarita pitchers and free chips & salsa, four of five grad students said they’d consider it, depending on the logistics of conjugal visits. (Of course, these are students, like myself, in an MFA program, not known for good judgment or practicality.)

As David Graeber points out in his excellent Debt: The first 5,000 Years, the idea of the I.O.U. has been linked to morality, to our very souls, since long before currency ever existed. If to be in debt is to be in a state of moral disgrace, why not criminalize it? Are prostitution and smoking weed really that much worse than enrolling in a creative writing MFA program, in terms of both personal degradation and cumulative effect on society?

Graeber writes:

To be in debt was to have a weight placed on you by Death. To be under any sort of unfulfilled obligation, any unkept promise, to gods or to men, was to live in the shadow of Death. Often, even in the very early texts, debt seems to stand in for a broader sense of inner suffering, from which one begs the gods — particularly Agni, who represents the sacrificial fire — for release. It was only with the Brahmanas that commentators started trying to weave all this together into a more comprehensive philosophy. The conclusion: the human existence is itself a form of debt.

— Robert Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years

Debtors’ prison would be open to all, although in the case of credit card, medical, or gambling debt, it would make more sense to declare bankruptcy. So I imagine it would become a kind of intellectual symposium behind bars, the feckless overeducated lifting weights in the yard and discussing Adorno and Arendt in the cafeteria, with the occasional stabbing over who didn’t return what book to the prison library on time.

Jailing us would be cheap — generally speaking, the student-loan-debt population is already literate, so we wouldn’t need education classes, although woodshop or small engine repair would be handy. Put us to work doing something useful, like patching roads, fixing America’s crumbling infrastructure, wiping oil off of sea birds, and in return we’d get three hots and a cot and free medical care, just like any other inmate. According to the VERA Institute of Justice, it costs anywhere from $17,285 (Alabama) to $60,076 (New York) a year to imprison an individual. To make it worth the state’s while, the prisoners would just have to be doing something worth that much money. Staff our public schools, maybe? Two crises solved at once!

Before the Bankruptcy Act of 1869 abolished debtors’ prisons, men and women in England were routinely imprisoned for debt at the pleasure of their creditors, sometimes for decades. When the breadwinner was jailed, their families were left to depend on charity, so the prisoners would often take their families with them. As a result, entire communities sprang up inside the debtors’ jails, with children born and raised there. — Marshalsea Prison, Wikipedia

Debtors’ prison would even be good for the economy at large: with so many college grads out of the work force, unemployment would drop substantially. Think of all the jobs created for correctional officers — privatized prisons are, after all, a growth industry. (Plus, if we jail the humanities majors, it might shift at least a few percentage points in the racial imbalance of our nation’s incarceration statistics.)

We’re already partway there, as WND reports:

Thousands of poor Ohioans face the prospect of incarceration, according to the study [conducted by the ACLU], even though imprisoning someone for a debt that person cannot pay is prohibited by the U.S. Constitution, a 1983 United States Supreme Court decision (declaring this practice to be a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution), the Ohio Constitution, the Ohio Revised Code and numerous decisions by the Ohio Supreme Court…”people facing jail time were informed of the total amount owed and, without any inquiry into their financial situations, assigned arbitrary monthly payment plans. At no time were they informed of their right to counsel.” The report continued, “The court informed them that, if they did not stay current in these payment plans, they would be required to turn themselves in to jail on a specific date several months in the future.” — Garth Kant, “Debtors’ Prisons Alive and Well in U.S.!, WND

In Ohio, prisoners burn off their debt at the rate of $50 a day. I’d be out in just over three years, years I am otherwise probably about to spend using my graduate degrees to work retail, be someone’s administrative assistant, collect unemployment, or enroll in yet another non-remunerative arts-related graduate degree program because it’s the only way I can afford health insurance. Because once tells you you’ll never pay off your student loans, what’s another $40K? At that point it’s sheer abstraction: Well, If I’m fucked forever, I might as well spend it doing what I enjoy.

So hey Obama, lock me up! I can deal with cramped living quarters, bad food, really bad contraband booze, high risk of sexual assault, spending hours a day reading books or writing letters to the family I miss. It sounds a lot like freshman year of college.

Michelle Crouch lives in Wilmington, North Carolina.