Is there any phrase more Dickensian than "debtor's prison"? The term conjures the trappings of a lost epoch of society, as history has a way of cobwebbing even prison walls enough to make them seem quaint. You imagine dripping stone, piles of straw, perhaps some nice chains to rattle.
The term "debtor's prison" seems even more archaic than whatever images even "gaol" or "Newgate" might conjure, because of the intrinsic fact that debtor's prison is a place. This image alone allows the debtor's prison to seem distant enough to become almost picturesque: At least today, we think, America doesn't lock up people for debt. In fact, the way debt can follow citizens today suggests a yet more insidious kind of punishment — one in which every space the debtor occupies becomes its own prison.
Certainly, it's hard not to wonder what Dickens would have made of the effect debt has on the lives of contemporary citizens. Both debt and debtor's prison were highly visible themes in his work. After all, he knew them intimately. When Charles Dickens was 12 years old, his father, John, was taken away to Marshalsea Prison as punishment for incurring a debt of 40 pounds and 10 shillings (the equivalent of about £4,300 today). Charles first tried to raise the money he needed to save his father, then watched as the rest of his family moved into Marshalsea to live with the elder Dickens. Charles, however, remained on the outside: The family needed a breadwinner, and now that duty fell to him.
In a recent essay, Carrie Frye lovingly examined the influence Dickens' childhood had on his later work:
Up until the time of his father's imprisonment, the Dickens family had lived an overcrowded life together. Now young Charles was staying alone in lodgings…The boy managed his own meals; he made his own way through the London streets to work. It must have been desperately lonely, and it's obvious he experienced despair. Instead of being at school, he now sat on a stool for 10 hours a day, tying paper around bottles with string and pasting labels on the front, while the warehouse rats squeaked and scuffled down below. [The Toast]
The specter of a child forced to pay for an incarcerated parent's crimes is disturbing enough; a child forced to take on the mantle of adulthood simply because their parent has been financially unlucky is almost too painful to bear.
Yet debt has never been just debt: Its power comes from the fact that it can impose upon its bearers not just limitation, but shame (at least so long as those bearers are individuals, rather than corporate or political entities.) Biographer John Forster recalled Charles Dickens telling him that "the last words said to him by his father before he was finally carried to the Marshalsea, were to the effect that the sun was set upon him for ever." Remembering these words, Charles said to Forster: "I really believed at the time that they had broken my heart."
Today, debt plays a near-constant role in American life: We are both a nation in debt and a nation of debtors, and so, to an extent, a nation that functions as a kind of large-scale debtor's prison. Perhaps nowhere is this reality more visible than in the way the American legal system has been able to turn debt into a kind of blunt instrument. A citizen's debt will reliably generate more debt, which will, in turn, generate a reliable profit for local law enforcement, or from the private companies that get in on the action.
In an incendiary article in the Harvard Law Review, Shakeer Rahman recounted the story of Tom Barrett, whose experience of the American legal system's debt labyrinth began in 2012, when he was arrested for stealing a can of beer. Rahman writes:
When Barrett appeared in court he was offered the services of a court-appointed attorney for an $80 fee. Barrett refused to pay and pled "no contest" to a shoplifting charge. The court sentenced Barrett to a $200 fine plus a year of probation. Barrett's probation terms required him to wear an alcohol-monitoring bracelet… The bracelet cost Barrett a $50 startup fee, a $39 monthly service fee, and a $12 daily usage fee. Though Barrett's $200 fine went to the city, these other fees (totaling over $400 a month) all went to Sentinel Offender Services, a private company… Barrett, whose only source of income at the time was selling his blood plasma, struggled to keep up with Sentinel's fees… As Barrett began skipping meals to pay Sentinel, his protein levels dropped so much that he was ineligible to donate plasma. After Barrett's debt grew to over $1,000, Sentinel obtained a warrant for his arrest. [Harvard Law Review]
The debtor's prison as discrete location may no longer exist as we once knew it, but this is only because our ability to punish debtors has now spread beyond prison walls. In Tom Barrett — and the countless other citizens like him — we find the story of a citizen not just controlled by debt, but forced to finance his own incarceration.
This last detail, if not the story itself, would seem all too familiar to Dickens: Two hundred years ago, the debtors at Marshalsea had to pay for their own imprisonment as well.