Prison for debtors – a trend that is growing in the U.S.
More than a hundred and fifty years ago, Americans were thrown into jail for not paying their debts, until the country did away with so-called debtors’ prisons in 1833. Today, similar punishments have returned for those in over their heads in debts.
While millions of Americans are still struggling to pay off credit cards and loans, many are finding themselves serving time in local jails because of failures to make payments or to appear at court hearings with debt collectors. Consumer attorneys said they’ve witnessed a rise in debt-related arrests in Arkansas, Arizona, Minnesota and Washington.
In Minnesota, arrest warrants for debtors have increased 60% during the past four years. Those arrested often serve 48 hours in local jails. But in some states, judges have ordered individuals to serve jail time until coming up with minimum payments to creditors.
Take Joy Uhlmeyer, who had been arrested while driving home to Richfield, Minn., after a visit with her mother. Uhlmeyer spent a night in a holding cell. Then, handcuffed in a squad car, she was taken to Minneapolis for booking. Finally, after 16 hours in limbo, jail officials fingerprinted Uhlmeyer and explained her offense.
Last spring, Deborah Poplawski was digging for coins to feed a parking meter when she saw the flashing lights of a police car. She was arrested, not for parking illegally, but for a small credit card debt. How much?
Thanks to interest and fees, Poplawski was on the hook for a lot more than her original debt. Less than a month earlier, she learned by chance that she had an outstanding warrant. A debt buyer had sued her, but she says nobody served her with court documents. She spent nearly 25 hours in the Hennepin County (map) jail. The judge told her to fill out a form listing her assets. A debt collection firm used this information to seize her bank account.
The federal government does not keep figures on these kinds of arrests, and the industry would prefer to keep it that way, says Robert Hobbs, deputy director of the National Consumer Law Center in Boston. “My suspicion is the debt collection industry does not want the world to know these arrests are happening, because the practice would be widely condemned,” Hobbs told the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune.