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Woman dies in prison: Mother of 7 dies in prison serving kid's school absences

A woman dies in prison while serving out a two-day jail sentence... for her children. The Pennsylvania mother of seven children was found dead in a jail cell this week after she was sentenced to serve 48 hours behind bars. Her crime? Her children had missed too many days at school, and their truancy landed this struggling mom in jail.

Woman dies in prison: Mother of 7 dies in prison serving kid's school absences
Woman dies in prison: Mother of 7 dies in prison serving kid's school absences
Debtor's Prison / Wikimedia Commons

Eileen DiNino, 55, was charged and sentenced under “excessive truancy violations” for her seven kids, who had missed a total of 55 days in school. However, while the total amount of days absent seems to be excessive, the 55 days represents an accumulating truancy, going back to 1999. In actuality, over the last 15 years, that’s only three to four days missed per year.

Now while not all of DiNino’s children have been in school that long, averaged out over seven children, their truancy was close to what the other kids would be, causing strong outcry among parents everywhere – and even the judge who says he was “forced” to sentence her.

Reports the Daily Caller via Yahoo! News: “Under Pennsylvania law, parents can go to jail for five days for every single time their kids have an unexcused school absence.”

In lieu of jail time, DiNino could have paid the fine, but like many families, she could not afford the $2,000. So she had to serve two days in the Berks County jail. After one day, she was found dead. The coroner said she died of “natural causes,” and ruled out foul play or suicide, but an autopsy and toxicology report is being prepared.

Sentencing Judge Dean R. Patton: “This lady didn’t need to be there. We don’t do debtors prisons anymore. That went out 100 years ago.”

In fact, Judge Patton told CBS News that he has "lost sleep" over the incident.

"Did something happen? Was she scared to death?" asked Patton, who described DiNino as "a lost soul."

Pennsylvania has laws on the books that criminalize delinquencies such as truancy or failing to pay a trash bill. According to CBS, over 1,600 have been jailed in Berks County alone for a failure to pay their children's truancy fines, which can be as much as $75 per unexcused absence. Two thirds of those put behind bars are women, mothers. In DiNino's case, her fines had been unpaid for the last four years.

"What you see is kind of a slice of inner-city life," said lawyer Richard Guida, who handled DiNino's truancy case. "The people home taking care of the children are mothers. Many times, they're overwhelmed, and some of these kids are no angels."

"The woman didn't have any money," said Diana L. Sealy, whose son married DiNino's daughter. "Years ago, I tried helping her out. She had all these kids."

CBS News picks up the story:

Patton said he has lost sleep over her death. At the same time, he acknowledged that a short jail stint can sometimes "break the habit" of parents who'd rather party into the night than take their children to school the next day. The county started a program a few years ago that gives families 30 to 60 days to keep daily logs of each class and assignment. He estimated that the district truancy rate had dropped more than 30 percent.

DiNino did not work or appear to have much help with four children still at home, according to Patton. She frequently skipped hearings, or arrived without requested documents... 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 cared about her kids, but her kids ruled the roost," Patton said. "She was just accepting what was coming, and (would) let the cards fall where they may. She was a different person. She was cleaned up, smiling. I think she realized, when this is done, the weight was off her shoulders."

Politicians were outraged at what appears to be a broken system that punishes impoverished parents.

“I have questions as well as what happened to the woman in prison,” Pennsylvania senator Judy Schwank said. “How did it happen that she passed away? Did she need medical attention and not receive it? I cannot understand how someone ends up going to jail. They did not murder someone, they did not steal, they did not commit a felony. How does jail time equate to resolving this particular problem?" asked the senator.

Berks County commissioner Christian Leinbach also weighed in, calling the process of DiNino ending up in jail an “insanity,”

“That unfortunately is part of the law in Pennsylvania and I think it is insanity,” Leinbach said. “There has got to be a better way to deal with truancy than putting somebody in prison. I think there are better ways to deal with nonviolent crimes,” adding that he’s “not even sure quite frankly that things like truancy and parking should be criminal offenses” and saying that he would “support legislation that would decriminalize those offenses.”

Update: One of DiNino's sons has now given a statement about his mother's death. For more on that and for new details on this compelling story, head over to:

Woman dies in prison: Woman dies in jail for kid's truancy, son speaks out

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