Some detainees pay $200 or more per day for creature comforts
In Southern California, “pay-to-stay” jails offer large private cells with various amenities to those who can afford to pay for them, according to a report by The Marshall Project produced in collaboration with the Los Angeles Times.
At least 26 pay-to-stay facilities are concentrated in Los Angeles and Orange counties. City jails in communities including Seal Beach, Pasadena, Huntington Beach, and Fullerton offer the cells at rents ranging from $45 to over $200 per day.
Initially, pay-to-stay jails arose in response to overcrowding in the area’s county jails, which are rife with gang activity and violence, said the report.
The Prison Legal News (PLN) cites a Michigan Law Review article that said of the Los Angeles County jails, “about 21,000 detainees are held in filthy cells so overcrowded … inmates must stay in their bunks at all times because there is not enough room for them to stand.”
In comparison, pay-to-stay jails offer solitude and reduced risk of exposure to violence and disease. Among the amenities found in some cells are flat-screen TVs, private phones, laptops, gym access, full-size refrigerators, work-release programs, upgraded beds, and food brought in by family or friends, according to PLN.
Because of the relative comfort and safety of pay-to-stay, it has evolved into the incarceration alternative of choice for celebrities and wealthy offenders who don’t want to live in regular county jails.
Crime victims, some in law enforcement, and others take offense at the relative advantages afforded by pay-to-stay.
“What a terrible idea. What a slap in the face for the concept of equal justice for all” said Peter Eliasberg, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.
PLN Editor Paul Wright said of pay-to-stay, “It really exemplifies the two-tier nature of the American criminal justice system … one system of justice for the poor … and another system for the wealthy and politically connected.”
But pay-to-stay has its advocates. One is Correctional Systems Inc. (CSI), which at one time ran the pay-to-stay programs for the cities of Alhambra, Baldwin Park, Montebello and Seal Beach.
CSI spokeswoman Christine Parker said of the facilities, “The benefits are that you are isolated and don’t have to expose yourself to the traditional county system. You can avoid gang issues. You are restricted in the number of people you are encountering and they are of a similar persuasion to you.”
Cities providing pay-to-stay promote the concept. A website for the City of Huntington Beach announced the following enticement: “Pay-to-Stay inmates are housed separately from all other inmates and will have minimal contact with non-sentenced inmates.”
The first day in Huntington Beach’s pay-to-stay costs $150 and subsequent days are $100 each. Interested parties fill out an application form and a medical questionnaire in order to ensure “that we are able to meet the inmate’s needs.”
Other cities have marketed their programs with less subtlety. Pasadena distributed a pamphlet that said, “Serve your time in our clean, safe secure facility! … We are the finest jail in Southern California.”
Pasadena began promoting its pay-to-stay program in the early 1990s. “Our sales pitch at that time was, ‘Bad things happen to good people,’” said Police Department spokesperson Janet Givens. “People … might have had a lapse in judgment and do not want to go to county jail,” said Givens.
One Southern California attorney offers assistance to those seeking an alternative to county jail. Attorney Peter Liss of Vista Criminal Law advertises online that “… these programs aren’t cheap and aren’t available to everyone … If a judge does not believe you can afford to stay in a pay-to-stay facility, he may not approve you to do so.”
The original purpose of pay-to-stay was to house non-violent, first-time, misdemeanor offenders sentenced to one year or less, the report said.
In practice, however, it is not uncommon for repeat felony offenders to end up in the city pay-to-stay facilities, often in counties other than the site of their offense, because judges have discretionary control over their placement.