Blogs > Liberty and Power > America's Debtor Prison for Men

Sep 25, 2009 12:27 am

America's Debtor Prison for Men

I received the following email from a heartbroken and understandably enraged wife whose husband languishes in America's version of a debtor's prison. No one knows how many people -- almost all of them men -- are being held indefinitely on contempt of civil court charges for which they do not have the due process protections offered to those accused of a criminal offense -- no right to a trial, an attorney, an due process. Most of these imprisonments are for non-compliance with court ordered child support or alimony. It does not matter if the man is unable to comply due to poverty -- e.g. from losing his job; he can be imprisoned anyway until he "pays up." For an analysis of the plight of these prisoners who languish in jail without ever being arrested, tried or accorded Constitutional rights, please see my article "The Return of Debtor's Prison."

The email reads, My husband is in debtor’s prison, and he is not alone. The court has him in custody until he pays a $15,000 cash bond. We have no money or property. Unless we get help, he could be there for the remainder of his life.

While imprisonment for debt was eliminated in this country in the 19th century, it has re-emerged under a new name: contempt of court. A defendant is deemed “in contempt” if they do not pay a court ordered debt, regardless of their ability to pay. The punishment: they are stripped of their liberty and sit in jail, at the taxpayer’s expense, until and unless money is found to purchase their release.

If my husband had raped a woman he would be entitled to a trial by an impartial jury. He does not enjoy that right as a debtor. If my husband had sold drugs to children he would be entitled to legal representation. He does not enjoy that right as a debtor. If my husband had molested a child, he would be subject to no more than a maximum sentence allowed by the law. As a debtor he can be held for the rest of his life. If my husband had robbed a bank he would be entitled to one phone call upon arrest. He did not get this opportunity and we had no communication until the 7th day of his incarceration.

The United States Constitution guarantees the right to bankruptcy. We went through this process but were effectually denied our right to the remedy of bankruptcy when his debt was deemed “non-dischargable.” Additionally, I believe his 1st, 5th, 6th, and 14th amendment rights are being violated. His freedom has been stripped. This is not the United States of America of which I was taught to be a proud citizen as a child.

I write not only on my husband’s behalf, but also for the thousands of other Americans who sit in jail for the simple “crime” of not being able to pay their debts. How sad for this country when these words, written over 250 years ago, are known to ring true in modern America :

"Since poverty is punished among us as a crime, it ought at least to be reated with the same lenity as other crimes: the offender ought not to languish at the will of him whom he has offended, but to be allowed some appeal to the justice of his country. There can be no reason why any debtor should be imprisoned, but that he may be compelled to payment; and a term should therefore be fixed, in which the creditor should exhibit his accusation of concealed property. If such property can be discovered, let it be given to the creditor; if the charge is not offered, or cannot be proved, let the prisoner be dismissed." Samuel Johnson: Idler #22 (September 16, 1758).

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Milford Josephs - 9/24/2010

Why mostly men is targeted. why it is happening till i don't understand. this and all type of news you can found here

Justin Bowen - 9/27/2009

By the way. I don't mean to disparage you Ms. McElroy. I'm familiar with your work, think you're doing a great job, and am aware that you're probably aware of everything I just said. Much of what I wrote is for the benefit of others. However, I do still think that until the groups that oppose change adopt a different point of view any efforts by you, Glenn Sacks, Carnell Smith, and others will be about as successful as spitting into the wind.

Justin Bowen - 9/27/2009

Clarence Brandley. Bobby Sherrill. Bert Riddick. Taron James. What do these men have in common with thousands and thousands of other men? They're all victims of women and the state.

Clarence Brandley was wrongfully accused and convicted of rape and murder in Texas. He spent nine years on death row. When he was released, he sued the state for $120 million, but had his cases thrown out on the grounds of sovereign immunity. The state of Texas responded with a lawsuit of its own for back child support for the time that he spent on death row for a kid that wasn't his.

Bobby Sherrill was a contractor with the Kuwaiti military. He was taken hostage by the Iraqi military when it invaded in the first Gulf War. The day after he returned to the US after being released, he was arrested for non-payment of child support while he was being held hostage.

Bert Riddick was a technical instructor in soCal when he was wrongfully-accused, and convicted, of being the father of a child that wasn't his. He lost his driver's license and eventually was forced into homelessness along with his wife and three biological children because his wages were being garnished by the state. He actually ran into his daughter one day when he was at a bus stop. She was driving a car that he was probably paying for while he was taking a bus because his driver's license was being suspended for not paying child support so that she could drive the car that he saw her in.

Taron James was a Navy vet of the first Gulf War. He, too, was wrongfully accused, and convicted, of being the father of a kid that wasn't his. He lost his notary public license, the opportunity to use his GI Bill, tens of thousands of dollars in child support and legal fees, and had to wait to get married to his fiance out of fear that her wages would be garnished as well.

Though these cases are not the same as others, they are certainly not isolated. Huge numbers of biological fathers are thrown in jail, turned into felons, thrown in prison, have their professional and driver's licenses taken away, lose their families, and are forced into homelessness (or worse) because they can't or won't pay child support. Huge numbers of men who aren't the fathers of the child for whom they've been ordered to pay child support also have the same thing happen to them. There are massive, widespread problems with the child support industry in this country and there is virtually no political support for changing it. Powerful interest groups, ranging from state governments, the federal government, and international organizations, NOW, various child advocacy groups (though how it's in a child's best interest to have its father turned into a criminal is beyond me), lesbian groups, lawyers' groups, real estate agents' and broker's groups, to judges' groups, have a vested interest in keeping the status quo. The fragmented opposition groups - which don't necessarily have a shared vision - that are fighting to change things just aren't powerful enough to stand up to these groups that all have as their captive audience huge numbers of politicians and bureaucrats.

So, while it's nice that you are taking the time to acknowledge this huge problem, it's simply a drop in the bucket compared to the help that is needed to affect positive changes. The status quo is the result of decades of intense efforts by seemingly-unrelated interest groups that already had powerful voices. The opposition groups fighting the status quo are now at all powerful and are not very well organized. It may simply be that there may be nothing that can be done about this.

Aeon J. Skoble - 9/25/2009

That's insane! If he's in prison, how is he supposed to earn the money he'd need to pay back his debts?