Debtors' Prison [2023]

Course Author(s)

Josh Webster

Course Summary

Debtors’ prison is an outdated term for a prison for people who are unable to pay a debt. However, in many states, government mechanisms are in place that will charge inmates and free citizens with judgments against them that include numerous fees, but when these judgements and fees are not paid, they are converted to time behind bars, essentially trapping individuals in a financial “debtors prison.”  

Specifically, in some jurisdictions within the United States, people can still be held in contempt of court and jailed after willful non-payment of child support, garnishments, confiscations, fines, or back taxes. Then they incur more fees while they are in jail, which they are also unable to pay, and these fees are converted to more jailtime. It is vicious cycle.

This course will explain how these systems work, the history of debtors’ prisons, the positive and negative justifications of this practice, and how it affects the most vulnerable and economically challenged citizens of society, keeping them locked in poverty.

This course is comprehensive. Some of the topics discussed in this course include: 

Programs that recoup money from inmates
Pay to Stay jail programs
Suing an inmate for their stay
How charging an inmate fees can reduce frivolous requests
The high cost to incarcerate
Should inmates pay for their stay?
A facility’s cost of providing its mandated services
The system’s cost of doing business
The history of debtors’ prisons
Between incarceration for failing to pay fines and collecting for inmate services during incarceration, an individual can be trapped in a vicious cycle!

Course Syllabus

  • Module 1 - Debtors' Prison Overview - from History to Modern Practices

    • Debtors' Prison History
    • Debtors' Prison is Alive Today
    • The Cycle Begins
    • The System's Cost of Doing Business
    • Module Assessment
  • Module 2 - How Inmates Incur Debt Inside a Correctional Facility

    • Inmate Debt
    • Medical Expense Debt, Dental Care Debt
    • Inmate Mail, Personal Hygiene
    • A Facility's Cost of Providing Its Mandated Services
    • Other Costs - Food, Utilities, Cleaning
    • Module Assessment
  • Module 3 - Should Inmates Pay for Their Stay

    • Should an Inmate Pay to Stay?
    • Why Pay for Someone Else’s Crime
    • How Charging Inmate's Fees Can Reduce Frivolous Requests
    • Module Assessment
  • Module 4 - Programs that Attempt to Recoupe Money From Inmates

    • Good Programs or Financial Distortions
    • Pay to Stay Programs
    • Four-Star Accommodations?, Work Release Inmates
    • Suing an Inmate for Their Stay
    • Collecting the Money
    • Module Assessment
  • Module 5 - Do Such Programs Make Sense and Cents

    • Do These Programs Work?
    • Violation of Rights
    • Summary