News & Politics

Deadly New Debtor's Prisons: Pennsylvania Mother Dies in Jail for Truancy Fines

Tragic consequence of criminalization of poverty.

Photo Credit: cunaplus/Shutterstock.com

If you thought debtors prison was something straight out of Charles Dickens—and something long ago left behind us—think again. Debtors prison is becoming very much a part of the American prison-industrial complex, and on Saturday, a Pennsylvania mother of seven died there:
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.

While dying in jail over truancy fees may be rare, going to jail over truancy fees is all too common, and it disproportionately hits women: "More than 1,600 people have been jailed in Berks County alone—two-thirds of them women—over truancy fines since 2000, the Reading Eagle reported Wednesday." Of course it goes without saying that people who go to jail over $2,000 in fines accumulated over years are not wealthy. Increasing court fees get added to fines—DiNino owed money for things like postage and a "judicial computer project"—often creating a cycle of debt owed to the state that it's almost impossible for low-income people to escape, no matter how hard they work to avoid incurring further debt. Somehow the answer our criminal system has arrived at is to spend money jailing people because they owe the system money they cannot afford to pay. And that's why Eileen DiNino died in jail.
 

Laura Clawson is the Labor editor at Daily Kos Labor, and a contributing editor at Daily Kos.

 

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