Prison Cell Upgrades Should Inmates Be Allowed to Pay for a Better Jail Experience?


Money can’t buy everything, but in Southern California and other places around the world, you can make your time in jail much more comfortable if your pockets are deep enough. There are at least 26 “pay-to-stay” jails in Los Angeles and Orange counties that allow convicted criminals to upgrade their jail cell to avoid the overcrowded and potentially more dangerous environment of general population.

Pay-to-stay participants are charged a one-time administration fee and a daily rate, which ranges depending on the location, from $75 a night in Hawthorne to $251 a night in Hermosa Beach. At Monterey Park, there is even the option of serving time in half-day increments for $51.

The facilities vary in size from a private cell with TV, phone, and full-size fridge in Fullerton to an eight-bed dorm room in Montebello. Other perks may include regular doors instead of bars, light security, the ability to wear personal clothing instead of the standard prison uniform, and the opportunity to go on work furlough, which allows people to go to their jobs with an ankle bracelet and return to the jail in the evenings to sleep.

The programs help alleviate overpopulated jails and offer a way for the cities to generate revenue, funds they can use to offset the public costs of their primary function –
holding suspects before arraignments and during trials. For example, the $300,000 made annually from 180 paying inmates at the Pasadena jail helps with $1.8 million cost of keeping everything running. According to analysis by The Marshall Project and the Los Angeles Times, from 2011 through 2015, more than 3,500 people did their time in Southern California’s pay-to-stay jails, and the programs raked in almost $7 million. The average stay was 18 days and the average cost of a stay was $1,756. The most expensive stay was $72,050, paid by a man who crashed while driving drunk, resulting in the death of one of his passengers.

While the program is meant for misdemeanor offenses committed in the same county, each case is decided on its own merits and it is ultimately a judge’s decision whether a pay-to-stay jail is an option for the defendant. Almost every pay-to-stay facility in Southern California allows offenders whose crimes were committed in other counties or states. From 2011 to 2015, 79 percent of the inmates were there because of DUI or other driving violations. At least seven people served time in pay-to-stay jails because they caused fatal vehicular accidents. Almost five percent of the cases involved serious offenses including assault, battery, domestic violence, robbery, and sex crimes.

Critics of the pay-to-stay system say it’s yet another example of the two-tiered criminal justice system in America, where people with money or fame get off much easier than anyone else. This lax treatment becomes even more troubling when offenders don’t mind their punishment.

In the Pasadena jail, inmates can ride the exercise bike, watch tv, and check out movies from the video library. When asked why he opted to do his time there, convicted drunk driver Mr. Kim said, “I heard that county [jail] is dirty and dangerous, especially for Asian guys like me. There’s so many gang members, they beat us up.” As he finished watching The Mummy, he added, “I just wanted a vacation.” Another inmate, who was doing six days for drunk driving said, “This is like a hotel.”

Shane Sparks, a choreographer best known for his work on So You Think You Can Dance and as a judge on America’s Best Dance Crew, started having sex with Monique Fronti one week before her 13th birthday in the 1990s. Fronti talked about her sexual relationship with Sparks when she sought help from a therapist years later in 2009, saying she felt powerless to stop it. Fronti’s therapist reported the allegations to the police. Sparks maintained he thought Fronti was of age and the sex was consensual. In 2011, he pleaded no contest to sexual intercourse with a minor under the age of 16.

Sparks completed his 135 day sentence within two years, despite being ordered to serve his time within one year, and continued to work and travel internationally. At Alhambra’s jail, Sparks wore his own clothes, brought in his own food and bedding, and spent most of his time editing musical recordings on his computer. “It was actually a retreat for me,” Sparks said of his time in jail.

When offenders enjoy staying in jail, they may not learn their lesson and the victims often feel cheated. “He got to take what he wanted from me and take what he wanted from the court,” said Fronti. “And at no point did I feel like I had justice.”

In 2004, Alan Wurtzel used an ad for a live-in housekeeper to lure women to his home, where he sexually assaulted them. He was sentenced to 135 weekends in jail after pleading no contest to sexual battery of two women and served his time in pay-to-stay jails in Hawthorne for $75 a night and Glendale for $85 a night.

Carole Markin met Wurtzel on in 2010. After their second date, he forced his way into Markin’s home and made her engage in oral sex. Wurtzel said it was consensual but pleaded no contest to sexual battery and was sentenced to a year in jail in 2011. This time, Wurtzel spent $18,250 for six months at a pay-to-stay jail in Seal Beach, which had new beds, flat-screen TVs, and a computer room. Seal Beach’s pay-to-stay jail makes the most revenue in LA and Orange counties, earning up to almost half of the jail’s total budget from paying inmates, because it is known to accept more inmates charged with serious crimes who have longer sentences to serve.

Martin was disappointed in Wurtzel’s short sentence but thought he would at least be locked up at the Los Angeles County Jail. When she later found out about his upgraded jail stay, she said, “I feel like, ‘Why did I go through this?’”

But in the eyes of the law, pay-to-stay jails are not a lesser punishment. City jail administrators say they offer a valuable option for inmates, such as sex offenders, celebrities, and very young or old inmates, who may be targeted in county jail.

“We didn’t create the system,” said Susan Kang Schroeder, chief of staff for the Orange County district attorney. “So we have to work within it and figure out what is in the best interest of a case. You could even say that if it helps the taxpayer save money, that’s always a good thing.”