Pay-to-Stay Jails: Comfort, at a Price

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In California, a jail sentence may actually come with some options. At the Fullerton City Jail, nonviolent offenders with sentences less than one year can opt to stay at a jail where certain amenities come with a price.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand.

Coming up, our medical expert Dr. Sydney Spiesel on a new treatment for nearsightedness.

CHADWICK: First this: in California, if you get into trouble - hey, Mel Gibson - and you're sentenced to jail, you just might get to choose your accommodations.

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates checked into the Fullerton City jail to inspect one option.

Sergeant LINDA KING (Fullerton City Jail): People typically come in here. And they pull them in, and then they take them out - the prisoner comes out and comes this direction. So this is how most people enter our jail.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: So this would be my first view of jail, if I were dropped off.

Sgt. KING: This is it. This is it.

BATES: That's Sergeant Linda King at the Fullerton City Jail. In some parts of California, if you're a non-violent felon and if your sentence is a year or shorter, you may be eligible to apply to stay in a jail like this under a program called Pay-to-Stay.

A handful of California jails offer this option. And recently, Fullerton's been in the news because one of its proposed inmates was former Orange County Assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo. He was scheduled to begin his stay here tomorrow.

(Soundbite of prison cell closing)

BATES: A last minute monitoring mandate would have made it impractical for Jaramillo to be supervised by Fullerton's tiny staff. So he's now shopping for another Pay-to-Stay facility. But this jail was his first choice. It's the only Pay-to-Stay program that allows inmates to bring their laptops and cell phones. That's your first hint that Pay-to-Stay is different from you're typical incarceration.

Sergeant King explains how it works when a man - and this jail only admits men - is accepted into the program.

Sgt. KING: He's required to pay the costs for his time here for us to be able to supervise him and house him. He will pay $100 for the first two days, and $75 a day for every day that he is here with us.

BATES: Those days add up. If you have a six-month sentence, for instance, you'd be shelling out more than $13,000 to stay here in this small, funny cell.

Sgt. KING: Beds, restroom, sink, lockers to hold their - some of their items.

BATES: There are bars on the windows, but there's also a small TV on the wall -the warden controls the channels - and a phone. A shaky card table beneath the TV holds a battered VCR and a reading lamp. It's not Alcatraz, but it ain't the Ritz.

Sergeant JOHN ELENA(ph) (Jail Supervisor, Fullerton City Jail): No, we don't tuck them in, and there's no chocolates on the pillows.

BATES: Sergeant John Elena is a jail supervisor. He says inmates who opt to spend their incarceration in Pay-to-Stay provide a useful service to his jail.

Sgt. ELENA: If we do not have an inmate worker, like I - when you just showed up, I was out washing down the sally port. I do not have an inmate worker today. It has to be done. I'm out there doing it.

BATES: During their stay, Pay-to-Stay inmates hose down the sally port - that's a security entry way, in civilian speak. They also empty trash, wipe the floors - including the ones in the nearby drunk tank - and deliver meals to other inmates. All these leaves Elena and other jail personnel free to do administrative tasks.

Sgt. ELENA: For example, Sundays is macaroni-and-cheese night.

BATES: Since there is no trustee today, Elena is checking the freezer in the tiny kitchen to see what's for dinner. Adhering to federal prison guidelines, the program gives inmates three healthy meals and a couple of snacks a day. But healthy doesn't mean varied.

Sgt. ELENA: It doesn't rotate. It's the same food every week.

BATES: Most of the program's inmates don't know this because they're not here for very long. There have been a few celebrities, but Linda King says these are the typical Pay-to-Stay customers.

Sgt. KING: We get a lot of businessmen arrested on drunk driving that have either court-ordered weekends or work furlough, that they stay here for a portion of the time. Most of them are businessmen who have the ability to pay the money and stay out of the main jail facility.

BATES: And it's that aspect of Pay-to-Stay that has attracted criticism - the very fact that it's only an option for non-violent people who have the wherewithal to ante up is troubling to Paul Wright. Wright is editor of Prison Legal News magazine.

Mr. PAUL WRIGHT (Editor, Prison Legal News Magazine): On the problems that I have with it is when you've got the wealthy - the screenwriters, the rap singers, the actors or the investment bankers that are literally able to buy their way into this, solely by virtue of the fact that they have money.

BATES: Having money allows someone like Dr. Dre to pay-to-stay in a nice, clean Pasadena lock-up instead of the far grimmer county jail he likes to rap about. And John Elena says his jail's not getting rich off Pay-to-Stay inmates. The fees only cover the cost of their stay.

But even if there's no profit involved, Paul Wright says the system is inherently unjust.

Mr. WRIGHT: When money is the measure how much justice you can afford, I think there's a problem with that. It certainly shouldn't hinge on how much money you have - where you go or how much time you do.

BATES: Which is why, Wright says, equal justice under law remains a goal, not a reality.

(Soundbite of prison cell closing)

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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