Jail or prison time serves the purpose of punishing criminals for their misconduct. Before realignment, prisons were overcrowded, with some facilities triple-bunking inmates and housing prisoners in gyms and dayrooms. Post-realignment, state prisons are less crowded but jails are now full of felons with up to 4 year sentences. One controversial but innovative solution to alleviate overcrowding and to refill the public coffers is “pay to stay” custody facilities. Penal Code section 4022 authorizes misdemeanor offenders to stay in facilities approved by a City, instead of a county jail. Judges also have discretion to allow some felons to stay in either County jail or in paid City facilities. There are at least 26 of these facilities in Orange and Los Angeles Counties alone.
Pay to stay facilities are controversial because some people feel that offenders can buy their way to safer, “cushier” accommodations without earning better treatment or conditions than others. Some facilities advertise that they have flat screen TVs, a computer room, kitchens accessible to prisoners for cooking their own meals, yoga rooms, exercise equipment, and other perks not available in county jails. But detractors don’t realize that the California Code of Regulations, title 15, governs these facilities too. That means that rules and disciplinary penalties, inmate discipline, access to telephones, religious services, and other aspects of prison life, are standardized. Additionally, those who choose to stay in the paid facilities do not necessarily receive the free medical, dental, and mental health services of the County jails, nor do they have access to the County’s educational and vocational programs (although other alternatives may be available including AA and NA programs). Many of these programs require a medical clearance and medical insurance coverage before allowing a person to be housed at the pay-to-stay facility.
There are several benefits to these facilities. First, the pay to stay facilities, such as the Seal Beach City jail in Orange County, do not deplete public funds. Offenders pay a daily fee ranging from $25 to $250 per night. Though most of these programs are voluntary, Penal Code 1203.1c(a) authorizes the courts to order inmates convicted of a misdemeanor and sentenced to serve a term of confinement to pay for their cost of incarceration in county jail, city jail, or other local detention facility.
Second, the pay-to-stay jails provide options such as work furlough programs, permitting inmates (if approved by the court) to leave during the daytime to go to work. The work release program is typically not available in county jails but helps the inmates to reintegrate into society more quickly post-release. Work furlough programs also help the inmates to support themselves and their families, which reduces recidivism.
Third, the pay-to-stay jails provide alternative housing for inmates who need protective custody or are otherwise unlikely to integrate well in a jail’s general population. On balance, given the multiple benefits, these facilities are likely to flourish.
But what about liability? If anything occurs in a pay-to-stay jail, such as an assault by another inmate, a medical event that arguably could have been prevented or mitigated, or a use of force by a custody officer, the inmate can and likely will sue. If a private corporation runs the facility, it will not have any immunity under the Government Code, unlike a City, County, or State. Since offenders sign an agreement to be voluntarily housed in the pay-to-stay facility instead of County jail, they will not be successful in suing the County that delegated housing, but will have to directly sue the operators of the facility and/or its staff.