I recently gave a prison reform talk to members of a book club at an upscale country club. The book club members were well informed and asked excellent questions. As always happens when I speak, I was peppered with questions about prison living conditions. People are fascinated by their knowledge vacuum. They delve deeply for information to quench the need to vicariously experience the feelings associated with incarceration. It’s like the suspension of reality experienced while watching a scary movie when we know there’s really nothing to fear.
When I talk about my time in the Orange County Jail (OCJ), ears perk up. Life in OCJ was hell. Just writing that last sentence shot a chill up my spine. I give a description of the jail on pages 47–48 of my book, Derailed.
Orange County Jail has no windows to the outside, and as a result, once inside, I lost my sense of time. There are no clocks on the walls, and watches are contraband, so my inner clock charted the time of day with pangs of hunger. Time passed without shadows. The sun was gone.
Weather was gone. And time was further eclipsed by the confusing architecture—open vestibules, closed corridors, mazes designed to slow inmate movement. All this culminated in my feeling of being lost. I felt like I was in a hole in the ground. My lungs felt tight with a lack of oxygen, and this caused malaise and an everlasting desire to sleep.
With a look of consternation on her face, a woman in the second row asked, “Can’t people in jail upgrade their living conditions by paying money for better accommodations?” What I heard her asking was this: “When I check into a hotel and don’t care for the room, I’ll pay extra for an upgrade with an ocean view. Can’t you do that in jail?” I thought the question was culturally naïve. I’d never heard anything of the sort. I answered no, and I was wrong.
California’s Pay-to-Stay Jails
A March 9, 2017, online article by The Marshall Project (TMP) opened my eyes to the subject of California’s Pay-to-Stay Jails. It discusses the pay-to-stay system that allows wealthier defendants to “upgrade” to better city jails.
The authors of the TMP article, Alysia Santo, Victoria Kim, and Anna Flagg, cite the results of an analysis done by TMP and the Los Angeles Times. Here are some of the findings:
- From 2011 through 2015, more than 3,500 people served jail time in Southern California’s pay-to-stay programs.
- Of the 3,500 jail inmates, more than160 had been convicted of serious felonies, including robbery, domestic violence, and sexual abuse of children.
- Cities with pay-to-stay programs report that from 2011 through 2015, these jails took in almost $7 million.
- Cities advertise for paying customers by openly touting “their facilities as safer, cleaner and with more modern amenities. The Santa Ana jail’s website, for example, notes that jail is a ‘highly disruptive experience’” and promotes its jail as a place where criminals can serve their time in a ‘less intimidating environment.’”
- “The most expensive stay, according to jail records, was $72,050, paid by a man responsible for a drunken freeway crash that killed one of his passengers.” Watch this March 18, 2017, Today in LA video about this case, and experience the controversy raised by the pay-to-stay program.
There’s much controversy about pay-to-stay programs, as there should be. The Dirty Little Secrets About Pay-to-Stay, a Michigan Law Review First Impressions article by two Loyola Law School Los Angeles professors makes five provocative points:
- Paying to stay is likely not an option for almost 90% of inmates in jail, including the 59% of inmates who earned less than $1,000 per month before their arrest and the 29% who were unemployed.
- Pay-to-stay programs reduce incentives for public officials to address the problems in our correctional facilities.
- Although the pay-to-stay concept presumes that private inmates are willing and able to pay for what they really need—rehabilitation—pay-to-stay programs generally fail to address that need.
- Pay-to-stay programs create a slippery slope for inequality in the criminal justice system.
- Capitalism and correctional systems don’t mix well. Despite the highly competitive capitalist world in which we live, we still expect our government to provide safe and effective correctional facilities.
I recommend reading the entire article to fully understand the scope of the professors’ highlighted dirty little secrets.
I also recommend an April 29, 2007, New York Times article by Jennifer Steinhauer. Her online article “For $82 a Day, Booking a Cell in a 5-Star Jail” tells the story of an OCJ I never knew existed. The story left me with two questions: why didn’t I know about the program, and what legal authority is there for pay-to-stay programs in cities that opt into the money-making enterprise? As to the latter, I could find none.
The question from the woman at the country club was important and legitimate. I will circulate this blog to the book club members, retracting my naïve no answer and replacing it with this updated material.
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