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Woman Jailed Over Outstanding Debt Dies in Her Cell

Christine DiGangi

A Pennsylvania woman was found dead in her cell June 7, halfway through a two-day sentence in Berks County Prison for unpaid debt. Eileen DiNino, 55, owed $2,000 in fines and court costs related to dozens of truancy violations her children racked up since 1999, the Associated Press reports.

DiNino was a mother of seven, four of whom still lived with her, and she did not work. Over the years, she skipped or was unprepared for hearings, but the 48 hours in jail would have eliminated her debt. The cause of DiNino’s death is unknown and, while sudden, isn’t considered suspicious.

Parental imprisonment for truancy isn’t unheard of in Berks County (northwest of Philadelphia) — since 2000, more than 1,600 people have been jailed there over truancy fines, two-thirds of them women, according to the Reading Eagle, a local newspaper. Under federal law passed in 1833, people cannot be jailed on outstanding debt, but every state has its own set of rules.

For example, if you fail to appear in court over a debt dispute in some states, you can be jailed for contempt of court. Some states also imprison parents who fall behind on child support.

These modern-day iterations of debtors’ prisons are just some of the many ways debt can be destructive. Collection accounts, missed loan payments and other factors often related to an inability to pay will wreck a consumer’s credit standing, which in turn makes it difficult to access some financial services, housing or employment.

Whether it’s dealing with debt collectors or the legal system, it’s crucial for consumers to understand their rights, and it can a smart move to seek help if they feel trapped by debt. For a better understanding of how these things impact your credit, you can get a free snapshot of your credit data (including two credit scores) through Credit.com, and you can read more here about how to protect yourself when dealing with debt collectors.

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