Thoughts on Pay-To-Stay Jails
Today, I read an expose by The Marshall Project about “pay-to-stay” jails in Southern California where those with financial means and court permission serve their sentences in private facilities rather than in traditional jailhouses. The story highlights that the well to do, even those convicted of arguably serious crimes, can avoid the dangers and inhumanity of county jails and instead enjoy the amenities available at these “private jails” such as refrigerators, televisions, comfortable beds, computer access and palatable food. Some, particularly victims, believe that the relatively cush conditions afforded these privileged offenders are not punishment enough. In the meantime, those without such resources are relegated to county jails and their desolate and perilous conditions. The authors contend that these facilities have “evolved into a two-tiered justice system that allows people convicted of serious crimes to buy their way into safer and more comfortable jail stays.”
The story exposes the arbitrariness, absurdity and inequity of our criminal justice system and incarceration machine. That said, overall, I am disappointed by the tone of the piece. I sensed an underlying sentiment that these offenders got off easy relative to their crimes, that they deserved harsher punishments and that they should be subject to the same inhumane, difficult and arduous conditions that other “regular” jailed inmates endure. Implicit in this article were the following questions: How dare a convict watch TV, sleep comfortably or use a computer? How dare they be able to keep their jobs? How dare they be able to avoid the indignities of county jail? How dare they be treated as actual human beings?
After reading the article, I visited a client at the Santa Clara County jail. He was escorted into the dingy, cramped interview room shackled at the hands, feet and waist. The correctional officer chained him to a hook on the wall, rendering my client essentially immobile, unable to even reach out to shake my hand or even scratch his own nose. The officer left the room and locked the door behind him. My client, charged with murder, had participated in a previous hunger strike to demand change in jail conditions such as overpriced commissary, limited outdoor access and inedible food. At the outset of this particular visit, we discussed the possibility of another strike to effectuate further reform. He detailed the daily inhumanity and indignity imposed upon him: forced to sleep in the clothes he exercises in because of limitations on garments issued to inmates, having to defecate in an open area as others look on, served green bologna and moldy fruit, and little to no time outdoors, deprived from feeling the sun or breathing the crisp California air.
Hearing about my client's suffering made me wish that he could afford or have the amenities of the “pay-to-stay” facilities mentioned in the article. But I didn't wish for the opposite: that his indignities be imposed on the subjects of the expose because they deserved harsher punishment to satisfy our communal notions of justice. Instead of insisting that traditional means of incarceration that break, degrade and dehumanize poor offenders be levied upon the financially able, shouldn't we be asking the following questions: Is jail the appropriate response to crime in the first place? Should we use incarceration as our metric for justice? Shouldn't jails like these “pay-to-stay” facilities be available for all offenders? Shouldn't all jails look like the ones discussed in the piece? Shouldn't all offenders have access to safety, work and humanity? Why does incarceration and punishment equal dehumanization?
These are questions this expose doesn't ask or answer. By detailing the troubling crimes of the offenders and their perceived light sentences, this article will inflame the average reader and will encourage the end of these pay-to-stay practices and the amenities they provide. In the process, rather than rethinking the use of incarceration as our answer to crime and creating a more equitable, humane criminal justice system, the larger community will likely instead call for the blanket application and re-utilization of traditional jail operations and methodologies that subject our fellow human beings to inhumane and belittling conditions. The net outcome of a piece like this is a further rooting of ourselves in our misguided conceptions of justice.