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For $82 a day, a jail above the rest

Sunday, April 29, 2007

SANTA ANA, California: Anyone convicted of a crime knows a debt to society often must be paid in jail. But a slice of Californians willing to supplement that debt with cash (no personal checks, please) are finding that the time can be almost bearable.

For offenders whose crimes are usually relatively minor (carjackers should not bother) and whose bank accounts remain lofty, a dozen or so city jails in California offer pay-to-stay upgrades. Their cells are a clean, quiet, if not exactly sought-after alternative to the standard county jails, where the walls are bars, the fellow inmates are hardened and privileges are few.

Many of the self-pay jails operate like the secret velvet-roped nightclubs of the corrections world. You have to be in the know to even apply for entry, and even if the court approves your sentence there, jail administrators can operate like bouncers, rejecting anyone they wish.

"I am aware that this is considered to be a five-star Hilton," said Nicole Brockett, 22, who was recently booked into one of the jails, in Orange County about 30 miles, or 50 kilometers, southeast of Los Angeles, and paid $82 a day to complete a 21-day sentence for a drunken driving conviction.

Brockett, who in her oversized orange T-shirt and flip-flops looked more like a contestant on a TV reality show than an inmate, shopped around for the best accommodations, travelocity.com-style.

"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 roughly $75 to $127 a day, these convicts - who are known in the self-pay parlance as "clients" - get a small cell behind a regular door, distance of some amplitude from violent offenders and, in some cases, the right to bring an iPod or computer on which to compose a novel, or perhaps a song.

Many of the overnighters are granted work furlough, enabling them to do most of their time on the job, returning to the jail simply to go to bed (often following a strip search, which, granted, is not so five-star).

The clients usually share a cell, but otherwise mix little with the ordinary nonpaying inmates, who tend to be people arrested and awaiting arraignment, or prisoners on trial or awaiting deportation and simply passing through.

The pay-to-stay programs have existed for years, but recently attracted some attention when prosecutors balked at a jail in Fullerton, California, that they said would offer computer and cellphone 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.

While jails in other states may offer pay-to-stay programs, numerous jail experts said they did not know of any.

"I have never run into this," said Ken Kerle, managing editor of the publication 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."

The California prison system, severely overcrowded, teeming with violence and infectious diseases and so dysfunctional that much of it is under court supervision, is one that anyone with the slightest means would most likely pay to avoid.

"The benefits are that you are isolated and you don't have to expose yourself to the traditional county system," said Christine Parker, a spokeswoman for CSI, a national provider of jails that runs three in Orange County with pay-to-stay programs.

Most of the programs - which offer 10 to 30 beds - stay full enough that marketing is not necessary, though that was not always the case.

A jail in Pasadena, California, for instance, tried to create a little buzz for its program when it was started in the early 1990s.

"Our sales pitch at the time was, 'Bad things happen to good people,"' said Janet Givens, a spokeswoman for the Pasadena Police Department.

The typical pay-to-stay client, jail representatives agreed, is a man in his late 30s who has been convicted of driving while intoxicated and sentenced to a month or two in jail.

But there are single-night guests, and those who linger significantly longer than a year.

"One individual wanted to do four years here," said Christina Holland, a correctional manager of the Santa Ana jail.

Critics argue that the systems create inherent injustices, offering cleaner, safer alternatives to those who can pay.

"It seems to be 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."

But cities argue that the paying inmates generate cash, often hundreds of thousands of dollars a year - enabling them to better afford their other taxpayer-financed operations - and are generally easy to deal with.

Still, no doubt about it, the self-pay jails are not to be confused with luxury spas.

The cells at Santa Ana are roughly the size of a custodial closet, and share its smell and ambience. Most have little more than a pink bottle of jail-issue moisturizer and a book borrowed from the day room. Lockdown can occur for hours at a time, and just a few feet away, other prisoners sit with their faces pressed against cell windows, looking menacing.

Brockett, who normally works as a bartender in Los Angeles, said the experience was one she never cared to repeat.

"It does look decent," she said, "but you still feel exactly where you are."