Many years ago I read in an article like this one about expats trying to leave the United Arab Emirates quickly whenever their job contract was cancelled. The reasons behind this behavior was that:

  • Large purchases (automobiles and houses) and rentals made in those countries typically involved paying in advance with a stack of post-dated checks, and
  • Finding the next job was generally not obvious, and
  • Writing checks that bounced could lead to a prison term

Also the prison terms in UAE could often last until the prisoner pays off the debt, and since it's difficult to have an income in prison, this could translate to a very long time period.

On the other hand, judging from this other article it seems that the law has changed in UAE and people no longer get imprisoned for bouncing checks.

Now I read this article about a person who had ended up in prison in the USA.

On Christmas Eve 2013, the Bear River City man incurred an ambulance bill. Tremonton City won a justice court small claims judgment against Iverson in September 2014 that compelled him to pay the city $2,376.92.

He never paid the bill and ignored repeated court orders to appear, court records show. That led to a county sheriff’s deputy, serving a $350 bench warrant issued by the justice court on Dec. 29, 2015, arresting him on the morning of Saturday, Jan. 23.

I had not heard of people being imprisoned in the USA for unpaid debts before. My impression was that unpaid debt is typically sold to collection agencies who then pester the individual until s/he pays the debt.

Like there is this guy who wrote a book about how to make money collecting judgements. In the book he explains that they can be from cases such as when a landlord has taken someone to court for not paying the rent, and the court decrees that the tenant has to pay. The book does not mention that the tenants can end up in prison for failure to pay (if that was the case it would be useful for a collector to know).

So the question I wanted to ask regarding debt in the USA:

What factors can cause a person to end up in prison for a debt? Is it the type of the debt, the amount, the type of the company/organization the debt is owned to, a combination of these or something else?

  • 5
    There are some areas if the US with regressive laws that effectively reinstate the concept of debtor's prison. Civil rights groups havd been trying to get that corrected. ___Most____ of the US has sense enough to realize that a person in prison is unlikely to ever be able to pay off their debt, and will not imprison someone for that alone; instead they'll sieze assets, garnish wages, and otherwise make you pay off the debt. Of course if there are other, criminal, charges as well (fraud, for example) you might be imprisoned for those.
    – keshlam
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 20:06
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    The book is a scam.
    – keshlam
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 20:06
  • 13
    The example above is someone going to jail over failure to appear, not for owing money. Had he simply responded to any of the matters he likely would not have been put in jail.
    – quid
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 22:17
  • post-gazette.com/local/2013/12/31/… This was 2013, recent enough to be relevant.
    – Brendan
    Commented Feb 28, 2016 at 3:59
  • One more reason I'll never go to UAE
    – Freedo
    Commented Feb 29, 2016 at 5:49

8 Answers 8


In that case, he was not arrested for being unable to pay his bill. He received a summons to court, failed to appear, and so a warrant was issued for his arrest. The $350 was his bail amount, which is funds that must be provided to the court in order to be released while pending trial (you get this money back once you appear before court). He also wasn't convicted of a crime and sentenced to jail in this case, just arrested. He would be "kept" by the courts (if he couldn't post bail) until his court date as a way of being forced to appear.

If a judgement was awarded against him, it still doesn't always mean he has to pay. If someone refuses to pay a judgement (but did show up to court) then typically their wages are garnished, which means the court orders that a certain amount of money be withheld from income, tax refunds, etc. until the judgement is paid. However, if the person ordered to pay can prove that they would not be able to have sufficient money to survive if they are garnished (I'm not a lawyer so I am unclear as to the exact process/standards) then there is a chance that nothing will be garnished at all.

So in short, no, there is no such thing as debtor's prison in the USA. There is definitely such a thing as being arrested / put in jail for defying court orders, and I'm sure if you took out loans while knowing you have no ability to repay them that you might be able to be charged with some sort of fraud, but just not being able to pay your bills doesn't mean you can go to jail. Of course, there is very little protecting you from simply running out of money and becoming homeless, but that's not your question.

  • 4
    Wage garnishment is far from typical and only possible in somewhat narrow circumstances depending on your specific jurisdiction. Generally the creditor would attach a lien on property. +1 otherwise though.
    – quid
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 22:21
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    Try not paying taxes or probation fines or child support. You can absolutely go to jail for that. Just because the arrest is a couple of steps removed from "debtor's prison", it still happens.
    – Will
    Commented Feb 28, 2016 at 1:52
  • 4
    @Will: Nope. You can absolutely never go to jail if you are truly unable to pay. Period. If you are able to pay but intentionally withholding payment, then yes, in some circumstances, you might go to jail.
    – user102008
    Commented Feb 28, 2016 at 8:03
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    Not in California. I have a good friend who had zero income and no job and a disabled daughter who he spent all of his time taking care of. He owed Child Support for another son of his with a different mother, and the court gave him 3 months to find a job, which he could not, and then sent him to jail for 20+ days. He's been back again for it since.
    – Will
    Commented Feb 28, 2016 at 8:50
  • 6
    Debtors prisons are illegal in America. Missouri locked me up in one anyway. I've lived in several states for extended periods of time, and everyone of them do this to some extent. If you owe your debt to a government agency (typically a municipality or county-level government), you absolutely can be locked up for it. Most places will let you out and cancel the debt if you can demonstrate you are truly indigent... but not all PDs and government follow the law. Commented Feb 29, 2016 at 6:32

Since you mention bounced checks in the beginning of your piece, it's worth mentioning that bounced checks can land you in prison, depending on various circumstances.

In this case, it's because you're committing a fraud, namely offering someone a piece of paper and claiming it's worth $500 or whatever when it's really worthless (because you don't have the funds). Simply owing a debt is not considered criminal, but proffering payment that is not actually valid is considered defrauding the person you are trying to pay.

This check fraud information site discusses the different penalties in each state (as this is primarily covered by laws at the state level). It is never "until you have repaid the check," of course; it is in most states a misdemeanor (<= 1 year in jail), though some states do make it a felony for larger amounts or repeat violations. These penalties are also typically at the judge's discretion, and in many cases you are only fined.

Some states have a minimum dollar amount for it to be a criminal offense; most seem to be around $500 or so, though there is quite a lot of variability.

Some real world examples of this include former NBA player Antoine Walker and former NFL player Joey Porter.

  • 2
    However, in this case (a loan "secured" by post-dated checks), it's simply an attempt by the creditor to force someone into that situation, rather than an actual commission of fraud (the checks aren't really "payment" at the moment they're written, and the person writing them has no reason to believe they definitely won't be paid).
    – Random832
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 21:15
  • 7
    For example, this lending practice (of having or threatening to have debtors arrested under bad check laws, based on a check you required them to write to secure the debt) is explicitly illegal in Texas, not that that stops it from happening anyway.
    – Random832
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 21:20
  • I'm not sure I read that article quite the same way you do, but agreed; most of the time in the US, that practice doesn't work.
    – Joe
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 21:25
  • 1
    Well, the article points out several things - that it's illegal, but also that creditors do it anyway and get away with it, because people who need payday loans can't afford lawyers.
    – Random832
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 21:25
  • It doesn't say it's "illegal" - it says it's not in keeping with the law. (i.e., there's not a penalty for trying to do it, but the courts shouldn't allow them to.) To me at least that's very different.
    – Joe
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 21:42

In the U.S., there are two kinds of court cases: civil and criminal. Only a crime can put you in jail.

Simply the fact that you owe someone money cannot land you in jail. If you agree to pay money to someone, and then you don't pay, you have not committed a crime. However, you may have committed a crime in the way that you became in debt. For example, as Joe mentioned in his answer, if you write a bad check and give it to someone as payment, you will owe them money (not a crime), but you will also have committed fraud, which is a crime that can put you in jail.

Another example is the IRS. The IRS cannot put you in jail simply for having unpaid taxes. However, it is a crime to lie on your tax return and evade taxes. It is an important distinction.

  • 3
    True. However, a judge can put you in jail for contempt even in a civil case. This could conceivably happen if you intentionally fail to obey a judge's order to pay, not that it usually comes to it. In theory, this isn't supposed to happen if you're genuinely unable to pay, though that's something you'd have to convince the judge. Commented Feb 27, 2016 at 2:14
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    And unfortunately it's gotten to the point where judges will not believe; which in turn leads to relatives paying off the debts; which reinforces the judges belief in his own mind his position was correct.
    – Joshua
    Commented Feb 27, 2016 at 2:21
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    I think there is an exception if you run a company and don't pay your employees' taxes. Because it isn't your money that you aren't paying, it's the employees' money.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Feb 27, 2016 at 16:25

As Zach mentioned in a comment, you can be sent to jail for contempt in a civil case.

So assume that a court orders you to pay amount x in alimony. You are unable to pay, for example because you lost your job and the amount was assessed based on previous earnings. The judge disagrees with you and thinks you can pay.

He can just sent you to jail for contempt of court till you comply with the court order to pay. The court does not need to prove that you are guilty of anything, they gave you a lawful order and you are not complying. The decision is up to the judge.

As this is not a criminal trial (IANAL, I don't know the technical term), you are not sentenced to a fixed term and then go free, but the judge can sent you right back.

Also, in a civil trial there is no presumption of innocence, nor do you have the right to a public defender, so it is more or less completely up to the judge to decide to sent you to jail for any amount of time, see for example: http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB123137263059962659

Here is one men who spent 14 (fourteen) years in jail for contempt, without ever being ever charged with any crime. The court ordered him to pay 2.5 millions to his wife, he said he lost the money. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H._Beatty_Chadwick

Ending up in jail for underpaid alimony is fairly common and does not need to be malicious. All you need is to loose your job, not enough money to pay for a lawyer and a judge who thinks you can pay. Also, the state will charge horrendous interest rates and fee on underpaid alimony, even during your stay in jail, see for example here: www.mrcustodycoach.com/blog/illegal-child-support-debtors-prisons

So in the U.S. you can find yourself exactly in the same situation as someone in the Emirates.

There is/was a lawsuit against Georgia for human rights violations because of this, I don't know the current status.

  • 1
    While it can happen, it's a stretch to say it's "fairly common." Commented Feb 27, 2016 at 22:42
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    I didn't have any numbers, but the NYtimes article below show how common it is in some states: "But in 2009, a survey in South Carolina found that one in eight inmates had been jailed for failure to pay child support. In Georgia, 3,500 parents were jailed in 2010. The Record of Hackensack, N.J., reported last year that 1,800 parents had been jailed or given ankle monitors in two New Jersey counties in 2013." So at least in South Carolina, a substantial fraction of prison inmates is in for debt.
    – noone
    Commented Feb 28, 2016 at 1:06
  • @no one Failure to pay child support isn't so much debt as it is a violation of a court order. Also, the statement that "one in eight inmates had been jailed for failure to pay child support" doesn't mean that 1/8 of inmates are currently imprisoned for that reason; it just means that an eighth of them had been imprisoned for that at some point in their life. It's also possible that, in some cases, that was used as an excuse to lock up someone who was suspected of another crime until they had enough evidence for an indictment on the other charge. Still, that is indeed a high percentage.
    – reirab
    Commented Feb 29, 2016 at 15:49
  • @ZachLipton it's happened to multiple friends of mine, and I'm just one person. I think it's just easy for people to say everything's fine when they really don't know. How many people do you know who are struggling to pay child support? I'd guess none. I don't at all mean to be rude, but it does annoy me when people who have spent no time involved with the US Justice System want to pretend it's fair and just.
    – Will
    Commented Mar 5, 2016 at 20:44

You absolutely can be put in jail in America for debt... if that debt is to a government or government agency (like a municipal government). If you have unpaid court costs, fines, etc., it's common practice in most municipalities to issue an arrest warrant for those, even if non-payment is due to being indigent. In a lot of cases, even if you show up to explain why you can't pay or make a partial payment on the due date, you'll be arrested and jailed until a judge is available to hear your explanation, if one isn't available right when you go in.

What's supposed to happen is that if you're indigent (can't pay), a judge will hear your explanation and, provided it's determined that you're indigent, make adjustments to what you owe (cancel or reduce the amount, extend the due date, setup a payment plan, etc.) and send you on your way. It bears mentioning that even in cases where the system works like it should, there's still a very real chance of being put in jail, which isn't harmless - people can and do lose their jobs while they're sitting in jail waiting to plead indigence to a judge.

So, in point of fact, it's not even all that uncommon for people to be jailed for unpaid debts (to the government), even if only for a few days.

And of course, what's supposed to happen isn't what always does. The police shootings of the past couple years in Missouri have shone some light in a lot of dark corners down there, where there are, in fact, de-facto debtor prisons in many municipalities. In addition to civil rights groups filing suit over this in many Missouri municipalities, the US Department of Justice has filed suit against the city of Ferguson over their municipal practices (including their use of the courts and jails to generate municipal revenue).

Some forms of private debt (like child support) also fall under this umbrella where an arrest warrant will be issued for failure to pay for any reason, and this was determined to be a factor in the Walter Scott shooting - Walter Scott ran to avoid being put in jail over child support debt, and losing his job while in jail.

The New York Times highlighted his case in an article titled: Skip Child Support. Go to Jail. Lose Job. Repeat.

Rodney Scott said that he sometimes thought his brother did not do everything he could to catch up, but that Walter seemed to consider it a hopeless cause. He recalled seeing his brother plead to a judge that he just did not make enough money.

“He asked the judge, ‘How am I supposed to live?’ ” Mr. Scott said. “And the judge said something like, ‘That’s your problem. You figure it out.’ ”

The bottom line is that debtor's prisons, whether legal or not, do exist in some form in some parts of the US, and even where they don't, people are jailed on a short-term basis for some types of unpaid debts.


Yes, there is debtor's prison in the U.S. But you don't get sentenced because of the debt itself, but because you are not paying as much as a judge deems reasonable.

Tens of thousands of mostly men are in jail because they are not able to pay an amount set by the court.

Here is a balanced article that explains the situation: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/20/us/skip-child-support-go-to-jail-lose-job-repeat.html

Note that the court does not need to prove your guilt.

You also can end up in jail even if you have absolutely no ability to pay:

In the Georgia class-action case, the plaintiffs were jailed in civil contempt-of-court proceedings in which they did not have lawyers. They included three veterans — one who had paid $75,000 in child support but fell behind when he lost his civilian job because of combat-related stress and family deaths; a second who was mentally ill and had a letter from a Veterans Affairs doctor saying he was unable to work; and a third who was incarcerated despite having paid $3,796 toward his debt by working odd jobs.

Note that in these court proceedings you do not have the right to a lawyer and you are not presumed innocent.


You absolutely, positively can land in jail in the United States of America for an unpaid, NON-governmental debt:

"In 2011, Robin Sanders was driving home when she saw the blue and red lights flashing behind her. She knew she had not fixed her muffler, and believed that was why she was being pulled over. She thought she might get a ticket.Instead, Sanders, who lives in Illinois, was arrested and taken to jail.As she was booked and processed, she learned that she had been jailed because she owed debt — $730 to be precise, related to an unpaid medical bill. Unbeknownst to her, a collection agency had filed a lawsuit against her, and, having never received the notice instructing her to appear, she had missed her date in court."

So, a private company is able to marshal the power of the State to arrest a person for a non-criminal act: being in debt.


  • 2
    Strictly speaking, even by your own telling here, this person did not go to jail for being debt. She apparently went to jail for failing to appear in court pursuant to a court order. The bit about the potentially "lost" order to appear does not change this to a story where she went to jail for debt, even if it does represent some flaw in the system. She went to jail for failure to appear in court.
    – user32479
    Commented Feb 29, 2016 at 19:02

Simply NO, you can NOT be put in prison for unpaid debt in America!! However, if you commit a crime to earn wealth, you can be put in prison for that.

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    Commented Feb 29, 2016 at 9:07

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