Do debtors' prisons still exist?

Does debtors' prison exist today?

Credit card debt can land you in jail -- especially if you miss your court date.
Credit card debt can land you in jail -- especially if you miss your court date.

You can still go to prison for your debts.

The easiest and most direct way is by failing to pay certain kinds of debts, including child support, alimony or release fines. This is because by failing to pay, you've violated a court order -- it's not the debt that lands you in jail, but noncompliance with an order of the court. Again: It's not a crime to owe money, but it is a crime to thumb your nose at a court order of any sort [source: StarTribune].

These court orders are fairly common in situations of finances gone south. In fact, debt collection agencies are wise to the power of court orders and may seek one as tool to force debtors into repayment. If you're summoned to court to discuss your debts, don't miss the hearing -- failure to show can land you in jail, as can failure to pay the amount ordered by a court.

Take the case of Joy Uhlmeyer, reported in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, who was pulled over and arrested while driving home from visiting her elderly mother. After Uhlmeyer spent 16 hours in process, including a sleepless night in a holding cell, police explained that her offense was missing a court-ordered hearing about a credit card debt.

Another possible way of ending up in jail for nonpayment is by letting your car insurance lapse. If you're going to drive, the law requires that you have car insurance. If not, you can be jailed.

But if you ever start feeling like the United States' debt laws have taken a turn for the tough, compare them to Dubai, where in 2009 the AP estimated that 40 percent of the prison population was jailed for defaulting on debt [source: Surk]. The country offered a perfect recipe for packing debtors' prisons: easy credit, jail for default and a boom-then-bust economy that saw the financial carpet whisked out from beneath many people living lavish lifestyles. The New York Times reports that in February of 2009, more than 3,000 cars sat at the Dubai airport, abandoned by debt-ridden foreigners fleeing the country rather than facing debtors' prison [source: Worth].

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Harris, Maryls. "Could debtors' prison make a comeback?" CBS Moneywatch. Aug. 10, 2009. (Sept, 29, 2010)
  • Rhode, Steve. "The history of credit & debt -- debtor's prisons." Dec. 2, 2009. (Sept, 29, 2010)
  • Las Vegas Sun. "Debtor's prisons." June 14, 2010. (Sept, 29, 2010)
  • Smith, Yves. "Jail for unpaid debt a reality in six states." Naked Capitalism. June 14, 2010. (Sept, 29, 2010)
  • Serres, Chris & Glen Howatt. "In jail for being in debt." Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune. June 9, 2010. (Sept, 29, 2010)
  • White, Martha. "America's new debtor prison: jail time being given to those who owe." June 15, 2010. (Sept, 29, 2010)
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