Only in California, you say? If you are convicted of a "relatively minor" crime, you can pay to upgrade your stay at a city jail in Santa Ana to one that is clean, quiet and safe. There are many city jails across the state that offer pay-to-stay upgrades.
If you are convicted of a crime, odds are that you are going to have to spend some time behind bars. However, if you are fortunate enough and live in California, and, as long as you've got the cash (no personal checks allowed), you can get "bumped up" to an almost bearable "cell".
For offenders whose crimes are usually relatively minor and who have pretty big bank accounts, there are a dozen or so city jails across the state that offer pay-to-stay upgrades. These jails are clean, quiet, and you won't have to share a room with a hardened criminal gang banger.
While jails in other states may offer pay-to-stay programs, numerous jail experts said they did not know of any. The San Diego County Sheriff's Department, which operates seven jails throughout the county, has no pay-to-stay program.
"I have never run into this", said Ken Kerle, managing editor of American Jail Association and author of two books on jails. "But the rest of the country doesn't have Hollywood either. Most of the people who go to jail are economically disadvantaged, often mentally ill, with alcohol and drug problems and are functionally illiterate. They don't have $80 a day for jail."
These pay-to-stay jails are known to operate like the secret velvet-roped nightclubs where you have to be in the know to even get in. The really strange thing is that even if a court approves you to serve out your sentence in one of them, a jail administrator can act like a bouncer and reject you if they want.
Nicole Brokett is 22 years old and she had the presence of mind to "shop around" for the best accommodations. "I am aware that this is considered to be a five-star Hilton." She was booked into one of the jails and had paid $82 a day to do her 21-day sentence for a drunk-driving conviction. "It's clean here", she said, perched in a jail day room on the sort of couch found in a hospital emergency room. "It's safe and everyone here is really nice. I haven't had a problem with any of the other girls. They give me shampoo."
For anywhere between $75 to $127 a day, convicts -- who are known in the self-pay world as "clients" -- get a small cell with a regular door and in some cases, the right to bring an iPod or computer.
The pay-to-stay programs have existed for years, but recently attracted some attention when prosecutors balked at a jail in Fullerton that they said would offer computer and cell phone use to George Jaramillo, a former Orange County assistant sheriff who pleaded no contest to perjury and misuse of public funds, including the unauthorized use of a county helicopter. Jaramillo was booked into the self-pay program in Montebello instead.
"We certainly didn't envision a jail with cell phone and laptop capabilities where his family could bring him three hot meals", said Susan Kang Schroeder, the public affairs counsel for the Orange County district attorney. "We felt that the use of the computer was part of the instrumentality of his crime, and that is another reason we objected to that." A spokesman for the Fullerton jail said cell phones but not laptops were allowed.
The clients usually share a cell but usually don't mix with the ordinary nonpaying inmates, who in these jails are the people who have been arrested and are awaiting arraignment, or a federal prisoner who is on trial or is awaiting deportation and is simply passing through.
The California prison system, is severely overcrowded and is teeming with violence and infectious diseases. It is so dysfunctional that most of it is under court supervision. If you have the money, wouldn't you be more than willing to pay to avoid it?
Christine Parker is a spokeswoman for CSI, a national jail provider who runs three pay-to-stay programs in Orange County. "The benefits are that you are isolated and you don't have to expose yourself to the traditional county system. You can avoid gang issues. You are restricted in terms of the number of people you are encountering and they are a similar persuasion such as you."
Marketing has not been a requirement for these jails and the 10 to 30 beds are full most of the time. Jail representatives agree that the typical pay-to-stay client is a man in his late 30s who has been convicted of driving while intoxicated and sentenced to a month or two in jail. There are also a lot of single-nighters, however, there have been some who have stayed for more than a year. "One individual wanted to do four years here", said Christina Holland, a correctional manager of the Santa Ana jail.
Inmates at the Santa Ana jail have to pay a hefty deposit once they have been approved for the pay-to-stay program. When they go to the jail, they go in through a lobby, not the driveway that is used by the other prisoners when they arrive.
Many of the pay-to-stay inmates are allowed to leave during the day to go to work and then return at night to go to bed. "I try real hard to keep them in custody for 12 hours. Because I think that's fair", said Ms. Holland. Most of the jails require that the inmates to do chores even if they work outside during the day. The inmates are strip searched when they come back each night because the biggest threat they pose to the system is that they could possibly be smuggling contraband into the jail for the nonpaying inmates.
Critics say that this system is creating an injustice because it's offering a cleaner, safer alternative to those who can pay. "It seems to be a little unfair,” said Mike Jackson, the training manager of the National Sheriff's Association. "Two people come in, have the same offense, and the guy who has money gets to pay to stay and the other doesn't. The system is supposed to be equitable."
Cities argue that the inmates who pay are generating cash for them and that lets them afford other taxpayer financed operations. They also point out that the inmates in self-pay are generally easier to deal with. "We never had a problem with self pay", said Steve Lechuga, the operations manager for CSI. "I haven't seen any fights in years. We had a really good success rate with them."
Brockett, who works as a bartender in Los Angeles, says that the experience was that one she does not care to repeat. "It does look decent but you still feel exactly where you are.”