If You’re Poor In America, Debtor’s Prison Is Real

— The ACLU said it’s a system that breeds coercion and abuse.

The report concluded that, “with little government oversight, debt collectors, backed by arrest warrants and wielding bounced check demand letters, can frighten people into paying money that may not even be owed.”

Few tools are as coercive or as effective as the threat of incarceration, ACLU report authors said.

As an example, one 75-year-old woman subsisting on $800 monthly Social Security checks, went without her medications in order to pay the fees she believed were required to avoid jail time for bouncing a check.

And as one lawyer in Texas, who has sought arrests of student loan borrowers who are in arrears, said, “It’s easier to settle when the debtor is under arrest,” the report’s authors found.

The people who are jailed or threatened with jail often are the most vulnerable Americans living paycheck to paycheck, one emergency away from financial catastrophe, the report said.

Many were struggling to recover after the loss of a job, mounting medical bills, the death of a family member, a divorce, or an illness.

“They included retirees or people with disabilities who are unable to work. Some were subsisting solely on Social Security, unemployment insurance, disability benefits, or veterans’ benefits – income that is legally protected from outstanding debt judgments,” the report’s authors wrote.