The jailhouse divergence: Why debtors’ prisons disappeared in 19th century Europe and flourished in West Africa

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It has been argued that the debtors’ prison was abolished in 19th century Europe and North America because the institution contradicted the principles of modern capitalism; by confining debtors for unpaid loans, it punished the poor while hampering the creditor, who could not be repaid by a debtor rotting in jail. This essay revises these assumptions through a study of debtors’ prisons in 19th century Ghana. It argues that, in both Europe and West Africa, the debtors’ prison historically emerged as a hostage-taking institution. Families paid their members’ loans to free them. In 19th century Ghana, this system proved crucial to the spread of mercantile capitalism; debt inmates were released within a week and creditors were repaid in full. However, in Euro-America, a new belief in homo economicus as the ‘self-made man’ portrayed insolvency as an individual failure. The European nuclear family also reduced the financial base supporting the debtor. The result was that debtors faced months, if not years, behind bars. This essay suggests that debtors’ prisons disappeared in Europe, while flourishing in West Africa, not due to the emergence of capitalism, but because of the social fabric of credit relations—the financial obligations of Africa kin networks versus European families.





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Balakrishnan, S (2022). The jailhouse divergence: Why debtors’ prisons disappeared in 19th century Europe and flourished in West Africa. Punishment and Society. pp. 146247452210819–146247452210819. 10.1177/14624745221081961 Retrieved from

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Sarah Balakrishnan

Assistant Professor of History

Sarah Balakrishnan is a tenure-track Assistant Professor of History, specializing in sub-Saharan Africa, colonialism, and the Atlantic slave trade. She received her PhD in History from Harvard University in 2020. Prior to joining the History Department at Duke, she was a Carter G. Woodson Fellow at the University of Virginia and a Presidential Postdoctoral Fellow in the History Department at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. 

Balakrishnan is a historian of imperialism and colonialism in West Africa. Her first book project, Anticolonial Public: The Imperial Encounter and the Political Imagination in Southern Ghana, studies the emergence of an anticolonial movement from below in the area of the southern Gold Coast. Through changes to human-land relationships, religious ecologies, and spatial technologies of statecraft, Anticolonial Public charts the subversive political imaginations that emerged among non-elite Gold Coast communities, beginning with the arrival of the first European traders in 1471. It argues that, in the same way that imperialism in West Africa was a multi-century process, so too was the growth of anticolonialism. 

Balakrishnan has published articles on imprisonment, capitalism, debt, gender, policing and colonialism in the Gold Coast between 1500 and 1957. These articles have featured in The Journal of African History, Comparative Studies in Society and History, The Journal of Social History, Punishment & Society, and The International Journal of African Historical Studies. Several of these publications have focused on the emergence of an indigenous prison system in the Gold Coast before colonial rule, and the relationship between the chiefs' prisons and prior histories of slavery, bondage, and feminized labor. 

In addition to her historical research, Balakrishnan has written on the concepts of Afropolitanism, Afrocentrism and Pan-Africanism in the intellectual history of Black and African political thought. These essays have been published in Souls, History Compass and Transition (with Achille Mbembe).

For her research, Balakrishnan has been awarded funding from the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the Mellon Sawyer Foundation, the Philanthropic Education Organization, the Weatherhead Centre, and the Trent Foundation. 

Balakrishnan is a dedicated teacher and mentor to her students. She has received teaching awards at the University of Minnesota and Harvard. She currently offers courses in the history of Modern Africa, the global history of imprisonment, and in fiction writing. 

Balakrishnan is an award-winning fiction writer. In 2022, she was awarded the Narrative Prize for her story, "Rouses Point," which featured on the cover of Narrative Magazine in Fall 2022.

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