Friday 25 September 2009
by Wendy McElroy
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 appeal...no 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.