Debtors Prisons Return, Breast Cancer Survivor Jailed For Outstanding Medical Bill

Lack of a single payer healthcare system continues to be an embarrassment for America compared to other first-world countries, and now it seems for the growing number of Americans who fall behind financially due to illness are subject to worsening penalties- including jail in some disturbing cases.

By and large, debtors’ prisons were largely outlawed in the US by the mid-1800’s, but six states (Arkansas, Arizona, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, and Washington) allow for an arrest warrant to be issued for outstanding debt when other collections methods have been exhausted. (What exactly constitutes other collections methods is not necessarily legally codified.)

The issue of debtors’ prisons is sticky, and while they’re generally considered to be unconstitutional in theory, in practice, the imprisonment of private, non-criminal citizens for financial insolvency does occur with disturbing frequency. CBS explored the issue of a breast cancer survivor whose outstanding medical bill- in the piddly amount of $280- led to her imprisonment despite the fact the patient had been told the bill was issued in error in the first place. (Think about how often you’ve received a bill in error while insurance is working out terms with a doctor.)

Lisa Lindsay is a teaching assistant in Illinois (one of the states that expressly allows arrest for outstanding debt), and she was dragged off to jail after the billing error was sold to a collections agency. The AP reported:

“She got a $280 medical bill in error and was told she didn’t have to pay it… But the bill was turned over to a collection agency, and eventually state troopers showed up at her home and took her to jail in handcuffs.”

CBS quotes civil rights advocacy group the ACLU on the trend that is on an alarming upswing. The ACLU explains:

“The sad truth is that debtors’ prisons are flourishing today, more than two decades after the Supreme Court prohibited imprisoning those who are too poor to pay their legal debts. In this era of shrinking budgets, state and local governments have turned aggressively to using the threat and reality of imprisonment to squeeze revenue out of the poorest defendants who appear in their courts.”

In addition to jail time, debtors are subject to scary “poverty penalties,” like usurious interest and exorbitant fees tacked on for those who struggle to pay bills in the midst of a massive and unprecedented rough financial climate. NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice explains why soaking the poor is so dangerous:

“Many states are imposing new and often onerous ‘user fees’ on individuals with criminal convictions… Yet far from being easy money, these fees impose severe — and often hidden- costs on communities, taxpayers, and indigent people convicted of crimes. They create new paths to prison for those unable to pay their debts and make it harder to find employment and housing as well to meet child-support obligations.”

Despite not actually owing anyone money, in addition to jail and legal fees, Lindsay ended up paying $600- more than twice the false debt- to resolve the situation.