Friends of the Dickens Forum,

     Thanks to Herb Moscovitz and Edin Plevljakovic:   (pjm)

America's inescapable debtor's prison*
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 <> 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 <>/]

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 
<> 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/ <>]

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.