A Pennsylvania woman died in jail this week while serving a 2-day sentence for not paying the truancy fines she had racked up for her seven children.
And they say there's no such thing as debtor's prison in America...
The Christian Post reported June 18 that the woman, Eileen DiNino, 55, died Saturday night after being imprisoned in Berks County Jail for amassing over $2,000 in truancy fines, court costs and fees. Although the cause of death is as yet unknown, no foul play was suspected in the woman's death.
"This lady didn't need to be there," District Judge Dean R. Patton told the Associated Press. "We don't do debtors prisons anymore. That went out 100 years ago."
And yet, off to jail she went -- for owing a debt. The $2,000 was accumulated over a 15-year period, since 1999.
Patton said Eileen DiNino was "lost soul" and was "reluctant" to send her to jail for nonpayment after four years. The judge questions the practice of incarcerating people over what amounts to nothing more than debt -- to governments or even to companies and corporations.
But to say that America has no debtor's prison is something of a misnomer. Although the antiquated practice was all but phased out in the early to mid-1800s (and no small grievance among the many levied against Great Britain in the war for independence), laws remained on the books in some areas, and in others the debtor's prison has made a comeback. In fact, one judge in Alabama, Circuit Judge Hub Harrington, shut down the municipal practice of jailing people over accumulated debts that sometimes included fines and fees tacked on by private collection companies. He called the practice a "judicially sanctioned extortion racket" and noted that many defendants were incarcerated on bogus failure-to-appear warrants, then suffered the cruelty of having additional fines and fees associated with the court dates added to the total.
The Associated Press noted that over 1,600 people have been imprisoned in Berks County, Pa., alone since 2000 for unpaid fees, fines, and court costs.
“This woman should not have died alone in prison,” Judge Patton told The Reading Eagle. “Our ultimate goal is not to fine people or put them in jail, but that is the only tool the Legislature has given us when people can’t afford to pay.”
But what kind of logic concludes that payment of debt comes from placing people who are poor or impoverished in jail. Considering that by being in imprisoned they cannot work or secure the means to pay said accumulated debt (sometimes due to the fact that they became suddenly unemployed because they're missing work for being jailed)?
Eileen DiNino's death may not have occurred under suspicious circumstances but her death has shone a light on a very disturbing practice in America -- criminalizing the poor. And although she may have died regardless of where she was, nearly two hundred years of legal precedent abolishing debtor's prisons says she most certainly shouldn't have died where she did.