A woman in Pennsylvania was imprisoned for failing to pay a debt to the state. And then she died in her cell.
Eileen DiNino was 55 at the time of her death on Saturday, and had seven children. Her teenage sons were not so great at attending school, and her children had apparently accrued over fifty truancy violations. This left her DiNino with a debt to the state of about $2,000. Not all of it was the truancy fees; some were administrative costs that had been added. According to the Associated Press:
DiNino's court file shows a laundry list of court fees for one case alone: $8 for a "judicial computer project"; $60 for Berks County constables; $10 for postage. And she had been cited dozens of times over the years.
Her cases, according to the Reading Eagle, had been split between two judges. One of them said he was fed up with her never bringing any documentation to court which explained why she couldn't pay the fines. The other says he saw a more complicated situation:
Scott said he has known the DiNino family for about 15 years. He said Eileen DiNino came to his court in October to tell him she wanted to pay her fines but couldn't and still keep the lights on in her house and feed her children.
"She didn't have a job," Scott said. "She was living in a house owned by a family member."
"We sat and talked for a long time in my office and I could see that she couldn't pay the fines, that she tried to make her sons go to school but there is only so much a parent can do," Scott added. "I cleared all her cases last year."
That two judges came to such different readings of DiNino's situation really tells you all you need to know about a case like this. She was at the mercy of a judge's discretion. And some judges are thorough, will invite you to chambers, discuss things with you. Others will be disgusted because you didn't show up at the right day and time carrying the right kind of documentation.
There is little enough known yet about how DiNino died to determine whether her imprisonment literally caused it. All we know is that she was on medications for anxiety, high blood pressure, and bipolar disorder when she went into the county prison. And that the officials say they didn't administer any medication to her in the 24 hours she was there.
I gulped reading that list of diagnoses. One of the things I often wonder about, in this heavily indebted and often impoverished country, is how it is that people survive the stress of it. The answer, obviously, is that some do not. And that even the people who are scraping along do so heavily medicated.
Stress may not excuse them from having to pay back what they borrow but it does seem like it ought to be a mitigating factor. I keep thinking how unbelievably isolated this woman must have felt, because at a certain point the State of Pennsylvania was treating her as an enemy simply because she could not come up with cash. And what bad luck that judge was.
The reason debtor's prisons never made sense, anyway, is that debt itself is a bit of a prison. As any type-A Ivy League student carrying one of those big student loan burdens will tell you, it cuts off possibilities. It keeps you chained to a certain kind of life.
Which is quite depressing, yes, and has me contemplating a glass of wine at noon already.