Pay-to-Stay in California Jails

May 01, 2017 by

A “pay-to-stay” detention program in Seal Beach, California is stirring up controversy. As the name implies, the program allows inmates who are housed in other units, such as the Los Angeles County jail, to pay a daily fee to be housed in the city’s detention center.

Opponents of this practice equate the jail stay to a hotel stay – and with prices at $100 a night, the detention center is far from an average prison.

“We cater to good people who make bad choices,” said the center’s Sgt. Steven Bowles.

Few detention centers offer the option, but for a pay-to-stay (cash only) stretch in Southern California’s Huntington Beach or Seal Beach, a yearlong stay would run $36,550. The Fullerton option charges a flat rate of $127 a night. Needless to say, the facilities exist to serve a limited inmate population.

One reason inmates choose to pay is for the safety. Unlike general lockup, inmates in these more lavish detention centers don’t have to worry about the violence or racial tensions others have to deal with. These inmates are screened, interviewed, and have to pay, so the likelihood of them being violent is dramatically reduced. While acceptance is limited, the program is applicable to nonviolent, first-time, short-term, or vulnerable offenders – and even then, it is on a case-by-case basis.

But the other draw is the comfort.

Inmates in these prisons have the luxury of donated books, satellite TV, DVDs on portable screens, a well-stocked commissary, and occasionally yoga. Also, some inmates in pay-to-stay centers can have daily visitors and contact visits, meaning a quick pickup basketball game with the kids isn’t out of the question.

The jail even advertises its amenities in the newspaper. In 2013, it took out an ad saying, “Why spend your jail sentence of 365 days or less at county?” and highlighted the center’s flat screen TVs and computers.

Overall roughly a dozen California jails exist to serve inmates whose crimes are, typically, minor but whose bank accounts know no bounds.

The Los Angeles Times noted that at the time of their study, Seal Beach was bringing in nearly $400,000 from paying inmates – almost half of the jail’s entire budget.

While these programs have been growing, they drew a lot of attention when prosecutors found out that a former Orange County Assistant Sheriff, who pleaded no contest to perjury and misuse of public funds, was booked into the Fullerton facility and was offered a computer and cell phone.

It can be argued that this system, by nature, creates injustices. Two people can be found guilty of the same crime, drunk driving for instance, and sentenced; however, the one with more disposable funds can pay to serve his sentence in what many would call a luxury facility.

On the other side, if Seal Beach can generate half of its budget simply from charging inmates a per night fee, there’s reason to believe that this system could generate income that would otherwise come from state and county budgets.

As this practice continues to gain attention, law enforcement needs to ensure that regardless of the inmate’s financial status, equitable justice is served.


About the Author

Charles operates the Houston office for Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility.