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America Officially Dickensian, Jailing People for Years for Unpaid Debt

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


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 back Oliver 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 it caved 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.

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