At some point in history, having an unpaid debt would have been considered sufficient grounds for imprisonment. The debtor would be held in a designated debtor's prison until his or her family could satisfy the creditor's demands. A debtor's prison during the Middle Ages was often a large communal cell where both men and women lived in filthy conditions for months or even years, depending on the size of the debt and their family's ability to raise the money. Some debtors were allowed to work off their own debts through labor, but many were condemned to remain behind bars.
A debtor's prison was also a prime breeding ground for all sorts of diseases, which often led to a number of fatal outbreaks long before debts could be repaid in full. Some prisons allowed brief visitations from family members, and a few even allowed debtors to live outside the prison in order to produce their goods or pursue their trades. The concept of a prison for debtors was primarily to motivate family members to eradicate the debt as quickly as possible. Imprisoning the head of the household provided more than enough incentive, but quite often the debtor's families did not have the necessary skills or experience to run a profitable business.
The practice of imprisoning debtors in a squalid prison continued for several centuries. The early United States government tolerated the establishment of a debtor's prison until passing a law to end the practice in 1833. The British parliament followed suit in 1869, although it was still legal to briefly jail certain debtors who could afford to repay their debts but chose not to do so. Only a handful of countries around the world still have designated prisons for debtors for those who cannot repay large debts and do not have the legal protection of bankruptcy to ward off legal collection efforts by their creditors.
Some political pundits have suggested a return to the debtor's prison system as a way to address wholesale corporate fraud and mismanagement. If certain executives of troubled corporations or other failing institutions were forced to spend actual time in a modern debtor's prison, perhaps they would gain a better perspective on the seriousness of their actions and would not be tempted to commit such financial wrongdoing in the future. Others cite the increasing numbers of home foreclosures and personal bankruptcy filings as an indicator of the need for a modern debtor's prison in order to improve personal financial accountability.