Imprisonment for debt primarily affected men. Throughout eighteenth-century England, about 95% of prisoners for debt were men. About two-thirds of those were married men. Those men had on average about three children each. Many pamphleteers complained bitterly about the imprisonment of men’s bodies for debt. They repeatedly pointed to the hardships imprisonment caused for a debtor and his wife and children. That wasn’t merely a gender stereotype invoked for sympathy. Having a wife and many children increased a man’s financial obligations and increased the cost of attempting to elude creditors. Having a wife and children surely increased men’s risk of imprisonment for debt.
Imprisonment for debt significantly affected the ratio of men to women among prisoners. In England and Wales about 1780, the ratio of men to women among debtors in well-defined public prisons was about fifteen to one. The ratio of men to women among criminal offenders in those prisons was about five to one. The ratio of men to women in prison was three times greater for debtors than for criminal offenders. Imprisoned debtors in1780 accounted for about half the total number of prisoners. Hence overall, about eight men were in prison per woman in prison. The greater bias toward men in debt imprisonment significantly increased the over-all bias toward men among prisoners. The gender roles encoded in family roles and law directly contributed to highly disproportionate imprisonment of men.
Compared to circumstances in 1780, bias toward imprisoning men was much greater in England in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Imprisonment for debt in early modern England was extraordinarily high — higher than total imprisonment prevalence in 60% of countries across the world in 2008. The much higher anti-men bias in debt imprisonment relative to criminal imprisonment meant that the over-all anti-men bias in imprisonment was much higher. In early-modern England, the imprisonment sex ratio was probably about fifteen men in prison for every woman in prison.
The extraordinary regime of debt imprisonment in early modern England no longer exists, but bias toward imprisoning men has increased. English law no longer imposes sex-discriminatory debt disabilities on men. Criminal law in action, however, has shifted against men. In England and Wales today, the ratio of men to women in prison is higher than it was in early modern England. Current policy initiatives focus on reducing the number of women in prison. Their success will push the ratio of men to women in prison even higher.