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Woman dies in prison, jailed for school fines: 'Debtors’ prison' for mom of 7?

A Pennsylvania mother of seven died over the weekend in a prison cell and the judge that put her there lost sleep over the ordeal. This mom was sentenced to 48 hours in prison in lieu of paying school fines, that accumulated to about $2,000 for her kids' staying out of school. This sum also included court fees related to the fines, reports CBS News.

Woman, 55, dies in prison after she is thrown in jail for two days for school fines she was too poor to pay off for her seven children.
Wikimedia Commons

Eileen DiNino died in prison basically because she was poor and couldn't afford the fines racked up from the school. Berks County Commissioner Keven Barnhardt, chairman of the county prison board expressed his outrage over this. He was fuming that a mother of seven died in jail when she should have been at home with her kids.

The sentence that DiNino was serving was "meted out for the crime of being poor." The judge in this case, District Judge Dean Patton was "reluctant" to sentence 55-year-old DiNino because she owed money. "We don't do debtors prisons anymore," said the judge. "That went out over 100 years ago," reports Salon.

Judge Patton said he has lost sleep over this case. DiNino was found dead in her jail cell on Saturday and while her death is not considered suspicious, it is under investigation. The cause of death has not been determined as of yet.

People within the court who have been dealing with DiNino stress that she was a good mother, she loved her kids. The trouble with the kids not going to school stemmed from how the household was run, "the kids ruled the roost," said Judge Patton.

These truancy fines for parents are nothing new and neither is sticking a parent in jail when they can't afford to pay the fines. Since 2000, more than 1,600 people have been jailed in Berks Count, with two-thirds of those jailed being women. This is the number of people put in prison in just one of the counties in Pennsylvania.

In DiNino's case, her debt has accrued since 1999 with several of her kids not showing up at school. The most recent offenses have to do with her boys at their vocational school.

Patton asked what happened to DiNino? Was she scared to death in jail? This is a good starting point to take the laws off the books that criminalize truancy or failing to pay a trash bill.

How awful this is for this family. Do the people who threw this woman in jail have any idea what her children will need to live with the rest of their lives? Their mother died in jail serving time because they skipped school. That is a life-sentence of guilt thrust upon these kids.

What a foolish and harmful law this turned out to be. What about the cost to the state for sticking all these people in prison for a few days in place of paying off their fines? This can't be feasible financially. What is the state thinking?

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