Debtor Imprisonment Throughout History

face of a prisoner

Debtor imprisonment has existed throughout history and around the world. The Gospel of Matthew provides an example of debtor imprisonment from first-century Jewish-Greco-Roman culture. In a parable about the settling of debts, a lord had forgiven one of his servants a large debt. That same servant sought to collect a debt owed to him by his fellow servant:

{The servant for whom the lord had forgiven a large debt} came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii {a small debt}; and seizing him by the throat he said, “Pay what you owe.” So his fellow servant fell down and besought him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt.^

The Gospel parables use imagery from everyday life: tending sheep, drawing water from a well, sweeping out a room, etc. Debt imprisonment was probably a commonly understood aspect of ordinary life in first-century Judea.

Debtor imprisonment also existed in the ancient Islamic world. In the late twelfth or early thirteenth century, the Ayyubid-Egyptian Sultan al-Malik al-Adil I imprisoned his chief judge, Muhyī al-Dīn ibn Zakī al-Dīn of Damascus to extract payment of a penalty:

Al-Malik al-Adil ordered Muhyī al-Dīn to be detained in the fortress, demanded from him the sum of 10,000 Egyptian dinars and pressed for payment. Muhyī al-Dīn was to remain in prison until the amount was settled. He paid some of the money, but was unable to raise the balance. Al-Malik al-Adil was inexorable, saying: “He must pay the rest, otherwise I shall deal very harshly with him.” The judge was in dire straits. He sold all his possessions — his household effects, and even his books. Then he wrote letters to the Sultan, using the good offices of many leading personalities, such as al-Shamīs, the court teacher, and Shams al-Khawāss the vizier, asking for the remission of part of the amount or to be allowed to pay in installments.^

In early tenth-century Baghdad, physicians were assigned to “make the rounds of all the prisons in order to attend the sick inmates and cure their diseases.”^ Prisons in medieval European city-states from the early fourteenth century served mainly as places for detaining and coercing debtors.^ The same was probably true for prisons in the much larger city of tenth-century Baghdad.

Debtor imprisonment is a historical antecedent to the current penal pattern of holding many more men in prison than women in prison. Historically, men have been more involved in the monetary economy than were women and have had greater legal responsibility for monetary debts. Those economic and legal circumstances made men more at risk for imprisonment. In seventeenth-century England, men’s risks of debt imprisonment had grown to an extraordinary extent.

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