Debtor’s Prison for a Child’s Truancy Ends with Mother’s Death

Back in December of last year I posted about the re-invention of “debtor’s prison.” I noted it was often happening in response to fines that people were unable to pay. So it has happened again and the accused ended up paying all she had. She died.

A Pennsylvania mother of seven died in a jail cell where she was serving a two-day sentence for her children’s absence from school, drawing complaints from the judge that sent her there about a broken system that punishes impoverished parents.

Eileen DiNino, 55, of Reading, was found dead in a jail cell Saturday, halfway through a 48-hour sentence that would have erased about $2,000 in fines and court costs. The debt had accrued since 1999, and involved several of her seven children, most recently her boys at a vocational high school.

“Did something happen? Was she scared to death?” said District Judge Dean R. Patton, who reluctantly sent DiNino to the Berks County jail Friday after she failed to pay the debt for four years.

He described her as “a lost soul,” and questioned Pennsylvanian laws that criminalize such lapses as truancy or failing to pay a trash bill.

“This lady didn’t need to be there,” Patton said. “We don’t do debtors prisons anymore. That went out 100 years ago.

Well, it has come back.

They claim the woman died of natural causes, but it is hard for me to take such a claim seriously. She just happened to suddenly die in the middle of her jail sentence?

That being said, my problem is with the system, not the people—as far as I can tell from newspaper accounts. By letting the woman “pay” the debt in two days he probably was motivated to help her be debt-free.

Although she was often unkempt, she came to court clean and neat to surrender Friday, he said. She had on clean sweatpants, had combed her hair, and had tape holding her glasses together.

“She was a different person. She was cleaned up, smiling,” Patton said. “I think she realized, when this is done, the weight was off her shoulders.”

I think it is time to figure out a different way of handling these fines for those who cannot afford them.