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It May Be Against the Law, but Some Debtors Are Still Being Sentenced to Jail

guard at jail cell

— Photo: Getty Images

Deidre Carter expected just another hearing on a long-disputed housing debt when she was summoned to small-claims court in Evansville, Ind., this summer. She was stunned and terrified when the judge ordered her to jail for 30 days because she had fallen $110 behind on payments.

“I told him, ‘I can’t go to jail, I’ve got kids at home. I’ve never been to jail,’ ” says Carter, her voice catching and her eyes filling with tears a month later.

The order capped more than a decade of misfortune and struggle for Carter, 45. A 1998 car wreck destroyed her knee, an injury that eventually made it impossible for her to hold a job. She has four children ages 13 to 22—three of them living at home—and gets food stamps and child support payments. Her only direct income is $950 a month in Social Security disability benefits.

From that, Carter is expected to pay $10 a month toward a judgment of $401.60 plus court costs awarded to Evansville’s Grace Whitney Properties, from which she rented a house until 2003. (A representative of Grace Whitney Properties declined to comment for this story.)

21st-century debtors’ prison

Using a cane, Carter has hobbled into Vanderburgh County, Ind., courtrooms at least seven times to answer allegations that she missed payments. But falling behind had never resulted in a jail sentence for contempt of court. Never until Vanderburgh Superior Court Magistrate Richard G. D’Amour called Carter before him on July 16. As three security officers handcuffed Carter and patted her down for weapons, a friend rushed to the clerk’s office with $10 of his own money. But only the kindness of a stranger spared Carter time behind bars. In court on an unrelated matter, Jeanette Fleming was disturbed by what she saw and pulled out $100 to make up the difference and keep Carter out of the 21st-century version of debtors’ prison.

“I didn’t know you could go to jail for debt, especially when you don’t have any money,” Carter says.

Under Indiana law, you can’t. The state constitution expressly prohibits imprisonment for debt. But that hasn’t stopped some Indiana judges from finding small-claims debtors who have fallen behind on court-ordered payments in contempt and handing down jail sentences to them—even people who, like Carter, have no assets and limited income. Though no case resulting in actual imprisonment has surfaced, the threat can leave debtors shaken and, in some cases, cause them to give up benefits that are exempt by law from debt collection orders.

• In 2006, a judge in Dubois County threatened Sharon Sandage, an itinerant carnival worker, with arrest after she fell behind on payments toward a $2,140 debt. Still behind when she went to the courthouse six months later on another matter, she was detained but was released on bond after a court spectator went to his truck and got $310, the amount Sandage was behind.

• In January 2009, a judge in Perry County threatened Herman Button Jr. with jail unless he paid $25 a month toward an eight-year-old housing debt. Button, who is disabled, said he had no assets and no income other than Social Security.

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