By Chris Zoukis
A 55-year-old mother of seven died in a Pennsylvania jail cell on June 7, 2014 while serving a 48-hour sentence for failure to pay truancy fines and court costs that totaled about $2,000.
Eileen DiNino was jailed by Berks County District Judge Dean Patton for debts that had been accruing since 1999. The truancy violations caused by her children missing school were numerous, each resulting in up to a $75 fine, but DiNino’s debt increased as a laundry list of court costs began to add up. In one case, for example, she was billed $8.00 for a “judicial computer project,” $60.00 for county constables and $10.00 for postage.
“The woman didn’t have any money,” said Diana Sealy, whose son married DiNino’s daughter. “Years ago, I tried to help her out. She had all these kids.”
Judge Patton referred to DiNino as a “lost soul,” and said it was only reluctantly that he sent her to jail. He noted that a short stint behind bars can sometimes “break the habit” of parents who’d rather party into the night and not get their kids to school the next day. The judge added that he had lost sleep over her death.
DiNino did not work or appear to have much support for her four children who still lived at home, Patton said. “She cared about her kids, but her kids ruled the roost. She was just accepting what was coming, and let the cards fall where they may.”
DiNino’s imprisonment over truancy fines and court fees was not unusual, particularly for women. Since 2000, more than 1,600 people have been jailed for court and truancy-related debts in Berks County alone, two-thirds of them women.
Studies by the ACLU and the Brennan Center for Justice have chronicled the now-common practice of jailing people for traffic fines, court costs and other fees associated with the justice system, effectively creating debtors’ prisons. [See: PLN, May 2011, p.40]. Such low-level offenders are disproportionately female and people of color; virtually every state has laws like Pennsylvania’s, and the demographic breakdowns are similar.
While Judge Patton questioned his state’s practices, he still felt constrained to apply them in DiNino’s case and send her to jail. “The lady didn’t need to be there,” he said. “We don’t do debtors’ prisons anymore. That went out 100 years ago.”
In fact, many jurisdictions take a Dickensian approach to jailing people who fail to pay their debts, including in truancy cases. Police in Dayton, Ohio have conducted roundups to arrest parents of truant children; so have officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who arrested eight parents in one day. Truancy sweeps have also been conducted in Jacksonville, Florida.
“We’re serious about this,” said George Marshall with the State’s Attorney’s office in Jacksonville, referring to truancy arrests. “This whole process is to get the attention of the parents so they can work harder to keep those kids in school regularly. If they are not there, they can’t learn.”
Of course it may be disruptive and potentially traumatizing for children when their parents are hauled off to jail, which can have an impact on their ability to learn and academic performance, too.
Incarcerating parents for truancy fines is in line with a general trend of locking up minor offenders despite overcrowding in local jails. A recent study in New York City found that during a one-year period, 11,000 people spent all of their pretrial time behind bars because they were unable to post bonds of $100 or less.
According to a June 19, 2015 article in the New York Daily News, all states have compulsory attendance laws for schoolchildren, and truancy violations can carry up to a year in jail in addition to fines. In Pennsylvania, parents can be sanctioned if their children have more than three days of unexcused absences.
Judge Patton recalled that DiNino often appeared unkempt in court, but on the day of her final appearance she was clean and neat. She had combed her hair, put on clean sweatpants and taped her broken eyeglasses. “She was a different person,” Patton said. “She was cleaned up. She was smiling. I think she realized, when this is done, the weight was off her shoulders.”
State police announced in September 2014 that no criminal charges would be filed in connection with DiNino’s death. According to Berks County officials, she died due to natural causes.
DiNino’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the county and its private health care provider, PrimeCare Medical, in April 2015. The suit alleged that jail and medical staff had failed to provide adequate care despite DiNino’s repeated complaints of chest pain and difficulty breathing. She was diagnosed with uncontrolled high blood pressure upon intake, but never received any treatment or further check-ups. DiNino was found unresponsive in her cell the following afternoon and later died at a hospital; the coroner determined her death was caused by high blood pressure-induced heart failure. The lawsuit settled in January 2016 under confidential terms. See: Tarnoski v. County of Berks, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Penn.), Case No. 5:15-cv-02000-EGS.
“That was full neglect to me,” said DiNino’s cellmate, Nicole Lord, who was serving time for unpaid parking fines. “I do not think she deserved to be there and I do not think she deserved to die like that either.”
In a bipartisan effort to reform Pennsylvania’s laws regarding truancy violations, two state representatives introduced House Bill 141, also known as “Eileen’s Law,” in 2015. The bill would allow courts to sentence truancy offenders to community service instead of incarceration, though short jail sentences still remained an option.
“Prisons were meant for hardcore criminals, not mothers with kids that don’t want to go to school,” said state Rep. Thomas Caltagirone. “It needs to be tweaked in the Senate, but it’s a good bill.”
“We have to get away from the 1840s Dickens mentality of putting people in debtors’ prison for truancy, parking tickets and littering fines,” added state Rep. Mark Gillen.
Although the legislation failed to pass, a similar bill (HB 1907) was introduced in March 2016 and remains pending. Meanwhile, Berks County Commissioner Kevin R. Barnhardt, chairman of the county’s prison board, summed up the tragedy of DiNino’s death:
“This woman died in prison, away from her family … and for what?”
Sources: https://truthout.org/, www.alternet.org, www.cbsnews.com, www.readingeagle.com, www.pennlive.com, www.wfmz.com, www.abcnews.go.com, www.nydailynews.com
This article originally appeared in Prison Legal News in July 2016.