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For a fee, inmates can upgrade cells

Calif. self-pay jails offer clean, quiet accommodations

Nicole Brockett served a 21-day sentence for drunken driving in a pay-to-stay cell at the Santa Ana Prison in California. (Monica Almeida/The New York Times)

SANTA ANA, Calif. -- Anyone convicted of a crime knows a debt to society often must be paid in jail. But a slice of Californians willing to supplement that debt with cash are finding that the time can be almost bearable.

For offenders whose crimes are usually relatively minor and whose bank accounts remain lofty, a dozen or so city jails across the state offer pay-to-stay upgrades. Theirs are a clean, quiet, if not exactly sought-after alternative to the standard county jails, where the walls are bars, the fellow inmates are hardened, and privileges are few.

Many of the self-pay jails operate like the secret velvet-roped nightclubs of the corrections world. You have to be in the know to even apply for entry, and even if the court approves your sentence there, jail administrators can operate like bouncers, rejecting anyone they wish.

"I am aware that this is considered to be a five-star Hilton," said Nicole Brockett, 22, who was recently booked into one of the jails, here in Orange County about 30 miles southeast of Los Angeles, and paid $82 a day to complete a 21-day sentence for a drunken driving conviction.

Brockett, who in her oversized orange T-shirt and flip-flops looked more like a contestant on "The Real World" than an inmate, shopped around for the best accommodations .

"It's clean here," she said, perched in a jail day room on the sort of couch found in a hospital emergency room. "It's safe, and everyone here is really nice. I haven't had a problem with any of the other girls. They give me shampoo."

For roughly $75 to $127 a day, these convicts -- known in the self-pay parlance as "clients" -- get a small cell behind a regular door, distance of some amplitude from violent offenders and, in some cases, the right to bring an iPod or computer on which to compose a novel, or perhaps a song.

Many of the overnighters are granted work furlough, enabling them to do most of their time on the job, returning to the jail simply to go to bed (often following a strip search ).

The clients usually share a cell, but otherwise mix little with the ordinary nonpaying inmates, who tend to be people arrested and awaiting arraignment, or federal prisoners on trial or awaiting deportation and passing through.

The pay-to-stay programs have existed for years, but recently attracted some attention when prosecutors balked at a jail in Fullerton that they said would offer computer and cellphone use to George Jaramillo, a former Orange County assistant sheriff who pleaded no contest to perjury and misuse of public funds, including the unauthorized use of a county helicopter. Jaramillo was booked into the self-pay program in Montebello, near Los Angeles, instead.

While jails in other states may offer pay-to-stay programs, numerous jail experts said they did not know of any.

"I have never run into this," said Ken Kerle, managing editor of the publication American Jail Association and author of two books on jails. "But the rest of the country doesn't have Hollywood either. Most of the people who go to jail are economically disadvantaged, often mentally ill, with alcohol and drug problems and are functionally illiterate. They don't have $80 a day for jail."

The California prison system, severely overcrowded, teeming with violence and infectious diseases, and so dysfunctional that much of it is under court supervision, is one that anyone with means would pay to avoid.

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