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Justice in this country has always been for the privileged. The nation’s criminal courts are particularly punitive toward those who are too poor to afford bail, represented by overworked public defenders or simply not rich enough to mount an “affluenza” defense. From arrest to conviction, wealth and whiteness are precious assets for any defendant in a system that favors both. Numerous jurisdictions profit off fines and fees that nickel and dime the poor into debtors’ prisons. And then there are Southern California’s “pay-to-stay” jails, which offer more monied inmates nicer accommodations in exchange for cash.
The price to stay in one of these city jails can run the gamut from $25 a day in La Verne to just over $250 in Hermosa Beach. A collaborative investigation by the Los Angeles Times and the Marshall Project found that for $100 a night, inmates in Seal Beach’s pay-for-stay program had access to “amenities that included flat-screen TVs, a computer room and new beds.” The cost also affords inmates “semi-private rooms, single showers and the ability to... make phone calls whenever they want.” In addition to creature comforts, the program lets those with resources buy their way out of serving time in the Los Angeles and Orange County jails, where overcrowding, violence and inhumane conditions are often baked into every jail sentence.
“The benefits are that you are isolated and you don’t have to expose yourself to the traditional county system,” Christine Parker, of Correctional Systems Inc., which runs three pay-to-stay programs, told the New York Times. “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.”
In other words, if your pockets are deep enough, you can steer clear of the additional consequences—in addition to your jail sentence—that poorer criminals are forced to endure, and serve your time with people of “a similar persuasion.” Considering the links between wealth and race, and the racial disparities in prison sentencing, that undoubtedly means pay-to-stay jails create a class of inmates who are both richer and whiter than the general jail population. (The Times/Marshall Project investigation found incomplete race-based data figures.) Prisons, after all, are nothing if not a reflection of American society’s most prevalent biases and inequities.
"Those who are wealthy are able to upgrade their facilities to stay at nicer jails than those who are poor who may have committed the same exact crime," Lauren-Brooke Eisen, of New York University's Brennan Center for Justice, told the Times.
There are currently more than 25 pay-to-stay jails across Los Angeles and Orange counties, and between 2011 and 2015 those city jails raised nearly $7 million. The funds came from an estimated 3,500 inmates serving sentences mostly for nonviolent offenses; a whopping 66 percent of inmates were convicted of DUIs. But 4.5 percent, or just over 160 people, were jailed for “crimes including assault, robbery, domestic violence, battery, sexual assault, sexual abuse of children and possession of child pornography.” Several city jail inmates were repeat offenders. Judges sign off on defendant requests to serve time in pay-to-stay programs. Only the wealthier defendants tend to be informed of the programs’ existence, often by their paid counsel.
Some of the collateral consequences of even short jail stays—loss of relationships and jobs—can be avoided by pay-to-stay programs. Unlike the Los Angeles and Orange County jails, many of SoCal’s private jails allow inmates to serve out their time on the weekends, allowing them to live normally during the weekdays. Eight programs include work furloughs, permitting inmates to go to work each day and return to the facility at night. In one case highlighted in the Marshall Project/Times report, a former Los Angeles police officer convicted for stalking his ex-wife worked as a security guard and fitness trainer throughout his one-year incarceration. He didn’t inform his employers, who told researchers “they did not know [he] was serving jail time and that they believed he forged letters from them to secure a judge’s permission to leave jail.” The price for the privilege of coming and going so freely? A daily cost of $120.
Before they head to a city prison, most defendants do a bit of research, comparing programs based on price, reputation and on-premises conveniences. One former financial services CEO caught driving while high on heroin expressed to Marshall Project/Times reporters a clear understanding of the difference $100 a day made in his experience behind bars at Seal Beach city jail. “This is like paradise,” he concluded.