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Patrick McCarthy <[log in to unmask]>
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Charles Dickens Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 25 Jul 2016 12:40:55 -0700
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Friends of the Dickens Forum,

     The subject of comparative monetary values comes up more often than it
should.  But thanks to Russell Potter for offering a corrective view: pjm
> Thanks, Patrick for this excellent article! I tend to agree with the author
> (and there are many equally harrowing tales to be found).
> But the amount of John Dickens's debt may not be accurate. I don't know
> where the £4,300 figure comes from, but I thought I might mention the group
> the excellent historical currency converter at "Measuring Worth":
> https://www.measuringworth.com/ppoweruk/
> It enables one to compare sums in UK pounds (and shillings and pence) by
> date and by several good models. In terms of the retail price index, £40
> 10s would be £3,210 today. However, it also offers comparisons in terms of
> average earnings (which renders an equivalent of £33,900, or one based on
> the amount of an individual's share of the GDP, which gives a figure of
> £165,000.
> I've used this site quite a bit, and I like the fact that it offers
> multiple models.
> Russell Potter
> Russell A. Potter, Ph.D. FRCGS
> Professor of English and Director of Media Studies
> Rhode Island College
> 600 Mt Pleasant Ave
> Providence, RI 02908
> On Mon, Jul 25, 2016 at 1:56 PM, Patrick McCarthy <[log in to unmask]
>> wrote:
>> Friends of the Dickens Forum,
>>      Thanks to Herb Moscovitz and Edin Plevljakovic:   (pjm)
>> * America's inescapable debtor's prison*
>> Sarah Marshall
>> <http://theweek.com/authors/sarah-marshall>
>> Is there any phrase more Dickensian than "debtor's prison"? The term
>> conjures the trappings of a lost epoch of society, as history has a way of
>> cobwebbing even prison walls enough to make them seem quaint. You imagine
>> dripping stone, piles of straw, perhaps some nice chains to rattle.
>> The term "debtor's prison" seems even more archaic than whatever images
>> even "gaol" or "Newgate" might conjure, because of the intrinsic fact that
>> debtor's prison is a place. This image alone allows the debtor's prison to
>> seem distant enough to become almost picturesque: At least today, we think,
>> America doesn't lock up people for *debt. *In fact, the way debt can
>> follow citizens today suggests a yet more insidious kind of punishment —
>> one in which every space the debtor occupies becomes its own prison.
>> Certainly, it's hard not to wonder what Dickens would have made of the
>> effect debt has on the lives of contemporary citizens. Both debt and
>> debtor's prison were highly visible themes in his work. After all, he knew
>> them intimately. When Charles Dickens was 12 years old, his father, John,
>> was taken away to Marshalsea Prison as punishment for incurring a debt of
>> 40 pounds and 10 shillings (the equivalent of about £4,300 today). Charles
>> first tried to raise the money he needed to save his father, then watched
>> as the rest of his family moved into Marshalsea to live with the elder
>> Dickens. Charles, however, remained on the outside: The family needed a
>> breadwinner, and now that duty fell to him.
>> In a recent essay, Carrie Frye lovingly examined the influence Dickens'
>> childhood <http://the-toast.net/2016/06/30/miss-havisham-a-history/> had
>> on his later work:
>> Up until the time of his father's imprisonment, the Dickens family had
>> lived an overcrowded life together. Now young Charles was staying alone in
>> lodgings…The boy managed his own meals; he made his own way through the
>> London streets to work. It must have been desperately lonely, and it's
>> obvious he experienced despair. Instead of being at school, he now sat on a
>> stool for 10 hours a day, tying paper around bottles with string and
>> pasting labels on the front, while the warehouse rats squeaked and scuffled
>> down below. [*The Toast
>> <http://the-toast.net/2016/06/30/miss-havisham-a-history/>*]
>> The specter of a child forced to pay for an incarcerated parent's crimes
>> is disturbing enough; a child forced to take on the mantle of adulthood
>> simply because their parent has been financially unlucky is almost too
>> painful to bear.
>> Yet debt has never been *just *debt: Its power comes from the fact that
>> it can impose upon its bearers not just limitation, but shame (at least so
>> long as those bearers are individuals, rather than corporate or political
>> entities.) Biographer John Forster recalled Charles Dickens telling him
>> that "the last words said to him by his father before he was finally
>> carried to the Marshalsea, were to the effect that the sun was set upon him
>> for ever." Remembering these words, Charles said to Forster: "I really
>> believed at the time that they had broken my heart."
>> Today, debt plays a near-constant role in American life: We are both a
>> nation in debt and a nation of debtors, and so, to an extent, a nation that
>> functions as a kind of large-scale debtor's prison. Perhaps nowhere is this
>> reality more visible than in the way the American legal system has been
>> able to turn debt into a kind of blunt instrument. A citizen's debt will
>> reliably generate more debt, which will, in turn, generate a reliable
>> profit for local law enforcement, or from the private companies that get in
>> on the action.
>> In an incendiary article
>> <http://harvardlawreview.org/2015/04/policing-and-profit/> in the *Harvard
>> Law Review, *Shakeer Rahman recounted the story of Tom Barrett, whose
>> experience of the American legal system's debt labyrinth began in 2012,
>> when he was arrested for stealing a can of beer. Rahman writes:
>> When Barrett appeared in court he was offered the services of a
>> court-appointed attorney for an $80 fee. Barrett refused to pay and pled
>> "no contest" to a shoplifting charge. The court sentenced Barrett to a $200
>> fine plus a year of probation. Barrett's probation terms required him to
>> wear an alcohol-monitoring bracelet… The bracelet cost Barrett a $50
>> startup fee, a $39 monthly service fee, and a $12 daily usage fee. Though
>> Barrett's $200 fine went to the city, these other fees (totaling over $400
>> a month) all went to Sentinel Offender Services, a private company…
>> Barrett, whose only source of income at the time was selling his blood
>> plasma, struggled to keep up with Sentinel's fees… As Barrett began
>> skipping meals to pay Sentinel, his protein levels dropped so much that he
>> was ineligible to donate plasma. After Barrett's debt grew to over $1,000,
>> Sentinel obtained a warrant for his arrest. [*Harvard Law Review*
>> <http://harvardlawreview.org/2015/04/policing-and-profit/>]
>> The debtor's prison as discrete location may no longer exist as we once
>> knew it, but this is only because our ability to punish debtors has now
>> spread beyond prison walls. In Tom Barrett — and the countless other
>> citizens like him — we find the story of a citizen not just controlled by
>> debt, but forced to finance his own incarceration.
>> This last detail, if not the story itself, would seem all too familiar to
>> Dickens: Two hundred years ago, the debtors at Marshalsea had to pay for
>> their own imprisonment as well.
>> ==========================