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Soft Cell: California Inmates Can Pay for Cushier Accommodations

"Pay to stay" jails, which can run $250 a night, offer such amenities as unlimited access to movies, books and cable TV. Critics call it an unfair system.

LOS ANGELES — In California, some inmates have all the comforts of home — right in their jail cells.

At these so-called pay-to-stay jails, inmates with money have the opportunity to avoid the often-crowded and sometimes crime-ridden Los Angeles County Jail.

The facilities, which can run $250 a night, offer such amenities as unlimited access to movies, books and cable TV. Some facilities even allow inmates to leave during the day to work and return in the evening to serve their sentence.

The surfside community of Seal Beach is home to one of the most popular pay-to-stay facilities.

"We've had lawyers, we've had doctors, we've had teachers, we've even had Catholic priests," said Steve Bowles, a Seal Beach police commander.

For $100 a night, inmates at the Seal Beach Jail get semi-private rooms, single showers and the ability to watch television and make phone calls whenever they want. The arrangement helps the town raise money, but critics say it's a two-tier system.

"Those who are wealthy are able to upgrade their facilities to stay at nicer jails than those who are poor who may have committed the same exact crime," said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, senior counsel at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice.

Although pay-to-stay facilities are generally for those who commit low-level, non-violent crimes, a recent study by the Los Angeles Times and the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization, showed that 4.5 percent of all pay-to-stay inmates committed serious crimes, among them sexual battery and assault.

Carole Markin was shocked when she learned that her assailant paid to stay at the popular Seal Beach facility.

"It's an unfortunate reality," Markin said. "If you have money, you can have this option."

Monique Fronti was also surprised to learn that the man who pleaded no contest to having sex with her when she was just 12 years old stayed at a pay-to-stay facility in Alhambra, east of Los Angeles.

"I do not feel like justice was served," Fronti said.

Ultimately, judges have the final say on where inmates will serve their sentences. But for those who can afford it, "paying for your crime" has an entirely new meaning.