At the beginning of Chapter Six of his novel Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens describes for his readers the debtors’ prison at Marshalsea:
Thirty years ago there stood, a few doors short of the church of Saint George, in the borough of Southwark, on the left-hand side of the way going southward, the Marshalsea Prison. It had stood there many years before, and it remained there some years afterwards; but it is gone now, and the world is none the worse without it. It was an oblong pile of barrack building, partitioned into squalid houses standing back to back, so that there were no back rooms; environed by a narrow paved yard, hemmed in by high walls duly spiked at top. Itself a close and confined prison for debtors, it contained within it a much closer and more confined jail for smugglers. Offenders against the revenue laws, and defaulters to excise or customs who had incurred fines which they were unable to pay, were supposed to be incarcerated behind an iron-plated door closing up a second prison, consisting of a strong cell or two, and a blind alley some yard and a half wide, which formed the mysterious termination of the very limited skittle-ground in which the Marshalsea debtors bowled down their troubles.
The concept of a debtors’ prison seems as bizarre in Dickens as it does in in Saint Matthew’s Gospel, where a man is thrown into prison until he is able to pay his debts. Dickens felt a deep personal hostility towards such institutions, his own father having been imprisoned in one. He asserts, with vehemence, “it is gone now, and the world is none the worse without it”.
Not only was Marshalsea Prison a squalid place; it was also a pointless place. How were debtors to make any attempt at repaying their debts while incarcerated? Making their situation worse simply reduced the prospect of debt repayment.
Close on two centuries after the days of Marshalsea, the logic of the debtors’ prison lives on in the dealings of the European Central Bank with Greece. Although it is already economically crippled, Greece is to be subject to further burdens as part of a proposed second bailout. Greece cannot afford the terms; any secondary school student could tell the ECB that it cannot afford the terms, but the ECB response to the Greek debt situation is to subject them to further debt. Further debt will place further demands upon the Greek economy, accelerating the depression of economic activity and further reducing the ability to pay. This is the logic of Marshalsea.
Check today’s government bond yields and the yield on Greek bonds has reached 17.59%; if they were to seek new funding on the international markets, they would have to offer comparable rates, an utterly impossible ask. Prevented from entering the international markets, the ECB and IMF are the only bodies to whom they can turn and the ECB is of a Marshalsea frame of mind.
Lest it all seem very remote from a cold and damp Irish summer, the Marshalsea men are also running Ireland.