America Officially Dickensian, Jailing People for Years for Unpaid Debt

The corpse of Charles Dickens must be spinning like a whirling dervish.


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Sometimes, I think our society is becoming more and more Dickensian. But sadly, I don’t mean Dickensian in the sense of the big happy family gathering around the hearth for a jolly Christmas feast, or the flinty-hearted miser experiencing a life-altering event that, at long last, causes him to rediscover his humanity and become a benefactor to all mankind. No, what I’m referring to is the dark side of Dickens — and the man had a very dark side indeed.

Take, for example, Thomas Gradgrind, Dickens’ fictional schoolmaster in Hard Times, who espouses the kind of fanatically utilitarian educational philosophy that would warm the heart of Michelle Rhee. “Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts,” Gradgrind proclaims. “Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.” Hard Times is set a mill town, Coketown, full of factories that poison its workers as surely as, for example, the North Carolina glue factory recently profiled in this harrowing New York Times article poisons theirs — and in spite of OSHA regulations that are supposed to protect workers from such horrific consequences. The corrupt financier class, embodied in Dickens characters like Little Dorrit’s Mr. Merdle (Dickens always gave his villains the most brilliantly repulsive names) — clearly, they’re even more deeply embedded in our society than they were in his.

The Scrooge who, pre-transformation, rebuffs a request to contribute to charity with, “Are there no prisons? … And the Union workhouses, are they still in order?” — that guy expresses the Ayn Rand, anti-altruist philosophy that is all the rage on the right these days far more pithily than any of Rand’s interminably long-winded heroes ever did. (Admittedly, though, ol’ Ebeneezer wasn’t anywhere nearly as hawt as such strapping Randian hunks as John Galt or Howard Roark). Newt Gingrich (now there’s a Dickensian villain name if I ever heard one!) wants to bring backOliver Twist-style orphanages for welfare kids. Even what was perhaps the single greatest scourge of Dickens’ England, the child labor that haunts his novels (and that he himself experienced, when he worked in boot blacking factory as a boy) has not totally disappeared from our society. For example, child migrant farm workers are still with us, and still subject to systemic exploitation. At one point, the Obama administration looked like it was ready to institute some serious reforms, but itcaved to agribusiness interests and sadly, the underaged farm workers are still subject to the same abuses.

The latest creepy relic from the darkest recesses of the Dickensian past that appears to be making a comeback these days are debtors’ prisons. Debtors’ prisons show up in a number of Dickens’ novels, most notably Little Dorrit, which is one of his masterpieces. George Bernard Shaw claimed it converted him to socialism and called it “a more seditious book than Das Kapital.” Dickens surely knew from debtors’ prisons, since his chronically impecunious father had been in one. And now, as Think Progress reports, this reviled institution is being revived, and poor people in Ohio are being thrown in the clink for being unable to pay off debts — mostly legal fees and court fines. On Friday, Ohio’s ACLU released a report about the state’s debtors’ prisons, and it is a sobering and quietly enraging read.

Among the findings of the report:

— Being imprisoned for debt is clearly unconstitutional and was declared so by the U.S. Supreme Court over 20 years ago. It is also against Ohio law.

— People are being jailed for failure to pay fines and court costs, sometimes for amounts as low as a few hundred dollars.

— It’s affecting many people — as many as 20% of the bookings in the Huron County jail in the second half of 2012, for example. In two other counties, in one six-week period in 2012, a total of at least 120 people were jailed.

— Sentence lengths vary. One woman went to jail for ten days for being unable to pay $300 in overdue legal fines. A man who owed $1,500 in court fines and was behind in child support payments was sent to prison for three and half years.

— The law requires that you are entitled to a hearing to determine if you are able to pay court costs. Needless to say, none of these folks got that. Nor did they any of them receive a court-appointed attorney (are you joking?).

— Also? This practice makes no economic sense whatsoever. The court costs, cost of serving a warrant, cost of jailing these folks, etc., generally adds up to far more than the defendant owed in the first place.

— Needless to say, this practice is a nightmare for the people being victimized by it. The threat of jail constantly hangs over their heads, particularly if the debt is continuing and they have no way of paying it. Going to jail means they may lose their jobs and they have to scramble for child care. And - duh! — when they’re in jail, they can’t exactly be earning money to pay back their debts.

These people live very hard lives as it is. Jailing them for the crime of being poor is appallingly sadistic. The corpse of Charles Dickens must be spinning like a whirling dervish.

Debtors’ prisons are one kind of “traditional value” from the Dickens era we can all do without. And when they start bringing back the child chimneysweeps — and wouldn’t that make just the most adorable must-have conversation piece for the plutocrat who has everything? — please kill me quickly.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She has written for The Washington Monthly, Salon, Reuters, and other publications. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee.