The Debtors Prison
Every large Medieval & Renaissance city had one of these.
(I’ve created a map of one for you to use in your games below using the Random Dungeon Generator by drow http://donjon.bin.sh/ … it took some tweaking to get one that seemed to work, but that tool is great for on-the-fly needs)
Debtors Prisons were used to incarcerate those that owed and could not pay taxes or fines to the local authorities, gambling debts and other financial obligations that they were unable to make good on.
Throughout history, jails were mostly dark, overcrowded and filthy. All types of prisoners were often times herded together with no separation of men and women, the young and the old, the convicted and those awaiting sentence; the sane and the insane.
During Europe’s Middle Ages, debtors, both men and women, were locked up together in a single large cell until their families paid their debt. Debt prisoners often died of disease contracted from other debt prisoners. Conditions included starvation and abuse from other prisoners. If the father of a family was imprisoned for debt, the family business often suffered while the mother and children fell into poverty. Unable to pay the debt, the father often remained in debtors’ prison for many years. Some debt prisoners were released to become serfs or indentured servants until they paid off their debt in labor.
Debtor’s prison was like banking overdraw fees: you don’t have any money left so we will charge you for it. Debtor’s prisons were a money-making machine. In my game, I charge each prisoner a copper piece prepay just for the privilege of staying at the prison. This includes one meal of gruel. Anything other than that also costs money, including blankets, better food, stay of execution, etc. As long as someone pays for the prisoners monthly expenses, they will be given the possibility to have these “luxuries.” These costs are added to the original debt and any other fines the magistrate has imposed.
While in debtors prison, those that are able to can do certain tasks or even be “rented” to local nobility for a time, in order to work off their debts. The guards and the warden always take a cut of everything, so the cost of going to prison usually ends up double the original judgment against the prisoner. If a prisoner cannot pay their fees, they will end up executed or will meet an “accident” at the hands of another prisoner – which helps pay off that prisoner’s own debts!
Entire families would often live there with their imprisoned head-of-the-household. The prisoners had to pay for everything: food and lodging, to get out of shackles, etc. If you were lucky enough to be given living quarters with window-access to the street you could beg money from passers-by. Some prisons even had a grille built in to a wall so it was easier for prisoners to beg. Many prisons had an exercise yard called the racquet ground, so prisoners and their families could get some fresh air.
Here is the layout of a debtors prison:
1- Wardens Area
The Warden works and relaxes in this area, when he is not harassing prisoners. The room has a desk and chair for the Warden and a bench for those that are brought before him.
Several arcane torture devices are also in this area. Whether they are for show or are actually used is up to the GM.
2- Ruffians’ Cell
The worst of the worst prisoners are placed here and those who are on Death Row or awaiting prosecution for capital crimes. 6d6 prisoners will be housed here at any time.
If you end up here, things are not looking so good for you!
3 – The Exercise Yard
This area is open to the sky, but is a sunken courtyard (20 feet below ground with 20 foot walls above ground level.
Here prisoners, except those in the Ruffians’ Cell, can walk and get fresh air. Exercise time lasts about 20 minutes, unless it is a special occasion. Inmates are always supervised by 1d6 guards while in the exercise yard.
4- Processing Room
Here all new prisoners are documented and any possessions that are not allowed are taken for “safekeeping”. Those lucky enough to be released are debriefed here… usually with a stern warning to keep their mouths shut and to never come back.
Guards use this as a commons area when they are just coming or going off duty and also as a place where chain gangs, etc await transportation in and out of the prison.
5 – Work Room
Those prisoners housed in the Main Cell that are not given duties outside of the prison during the day are allowed to earn their keep here. Crafts to be sold and a variety of simple household items are made in this area. Prisoners can work 8 hours a day to earn their wage.
The wages earned here are usually barely above the daily costs of staying in the prison. Working here will probably not get one out of debtors prison, but will maintain the cost of daily living expenses the authorities charge.
6 – Main Cell
In this area, 6d6 debtors and other petty criminals will be housed. This is not an area for the most violent, but sometimes unpleasant events do occur.
The chance of getting a disease while housed in either the Main Cell or the Roughian’s Cell is 2% per day. Both cells are filthy and stink. The cell is dark and dank.
The only air and light in these cells comes from several small windows covered by iron grating. The ceiling is 20 feet high. Candles are a highly prized object among the prisoners.
7 – Guard Station
This is the hub of the actual incarceration area. 2d6 guards are here at any time, with others coming and going from time to time. The guards tend to keep to themselves, unless performing their functions of exercise, feeding and work periods. Prisoners who bribe or are otherwise on good terms with the guards get preferred treatment. Those that aren’t on the preferential treatment list often wish they were.
8 – Kitchen & Storage Area
All of the work and kitchen supplies, etc and everything needed to run the prison are housed here. A cook hired to make the daily meal for the prisoners (and a separate one for guards and special treatment prisoners) works here.
At the end of the long tunnel is a stairwell going down… to what is the object of rumors among the prisoners. Even the guards do not know. Only the Warden has been seen going down them and what lies below the prison he is not telling.
The entire complex is surrounded by a 20 foot wall of stone or timber (as the GM chooses).
While there might be worse places to end up, the debtors prison is still potentially deadly.
Anyone trying to tunnel should have a Random Encounter chance (1 on a d6, roll another d6 for the encounter):
1 Giant Rat
2 (1d3) Undead Skeletons – these were previous prisoners
3 2d6 copper coins
4 Carrion Crawler
5 Giant Ant
6 Jackpot! Secret tunnel out of prison!
Take a look at this fairly recent decision to not allow D&D in a prison:
No D&D for US prison inmate serving life