August 16, 2011 | By: Laurie Campbell

Prisoners of debt. Some history and some thoughts.

It’s true that for the most part modern civilization has become what its name suggests – civilized. A good example of how civil behaviour has advanced over time can be found in debtors’ prisons.

Yes, there was a time in countries and regions around the world when men, women, and even whole families could be thrown into prison for unpaid debts. The practice started some 2,600 years in Greece’s city-states. Given that individuals back then could pledge themselves as collateral for a loan, perhaps it’s not surprising that they could also be sold into slavery should they fail to meet their financial obligations.

Barbaric you say? Indeed it was. But thank heaven the practice was later banned. It would be a sorry thing today to see members of the now virtually bankrupt Greek government be herded off to a slave auction mart – live on CNN.

Medieval Europe was no better than ancient Greece. Individuals who failed to pay their debts could – along with members of their family – be locked up in dank, dark prisons under deplorable conditions.

Starvation and disease - along with abuse from other inmates and corrupt prison guards - made imprisonment for unpaid debt a living nightmare. Occasionally, some debt prisoners were released to become serfs or indentured servants until they met their obligations through hard labour. The terms of imprisonment and/or servitude often lasted years. The families of locked up men frequently suffered greatly, as mothers and children fell into abject poverty.

Looking back almost 200 years, we see that throughout Europe and the Kingdom of Great Britain – including a region that was later to become Canada – debtors’ prisons were tolerated. But during the 19th Century, growing social and political awareness brought change - namely, public law was set in stone and certain practices for criminal punishment were deemed to be just too harsh.

Most debtors’ prisons were eliminated in Europe, and the United States and Great Britain followed suit. Today, though, debtors’ prisons still exist in some places on Earth, so be careful where you choose to live, work, and take out loans. You can still be imprisoned for unpaid debt in the United Arab Emirates, including Dubai. In fact, it’s common practice in the UAE, where banks are most unforgiving.

It is said that the best way to deal with bad debt in this region is to simply flee the area. But don’t high-tail it to China and land in more debt trouble, because Hong Kong has long imprisoned debtors for failing to pay, and on the country’s mainland the first prison sentence for unpaid debts was handed down in 2008.

Well, we can be thankful that in Canada we are free of the barbarism. But we shouldn’t be too smug about our circumstances because prisons don’t just come with stone walls – we also create them figuratively through the way we act and think.

Prisons of the mind can be dank, dark places, too. Just ask anyone who is overcome with anxiety and depression about finances that have spiralled out of control. The good news is that these prisons, too, can be eliminated. All it takes is a little willpower, and the right tools and knowledge. Also, smart friends can help spring you.

To cast off the ball and chains, you know who to call.


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