Eileen DiNino, 55, a mother of seven from Reading, Pennsylvania, 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.
Her death is not suspicious, but the cause of death has not yet been determined, police said. An autopsy has been performed, and the toxicology report is pending.
“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.
He described her as “a lost soul,” and questioned Pennsylvanian laws that criminalize such lapses as truancy or failing to pay a trash bill.
“This lady didn’t need to be there,” Patton said. “We don’t do debtors prisons anymore. That went out 100 years ago.”
“She was a different person. She was cleaned up, smiling,” Judge Patton said. “I think she realized, when this thing is done, the weight was off her shoulders.”
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.
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.