Chez Big House

colson2Imagine for a moment that you’re an L.A. big shot. You have just been convicted of a nonviolent crime, and your lawyer tells you that, unfortunately, you’re going spend some time behind bars. After you get over the shock, who is the first person you call? Your spouse? Broker? Well, for some well-heeled Angelinos, the answer is more likely “your travel agent.” The New York Times recently told readers about California jails that offer what it called “pay to stay upgrades.” No one would confuse these facilities with the Beverly Hills Ritz-Carlton. But, for someone facing jail time, they offer a “clean, quiet . . . alternative” to county jails where “the walls are bars, the fellow inmates are hardened and privileges are few.” Of course, these alternatives come at a price: The “clients,” as they are called, pay the cost of their incarceration, between $75 and $127 a day—all upfront. But it takes more than money to get a room. As with some exclusive nightclubs, “you have to be in the know to even apply for entry.” The court must approve your application and, even then, your prospective jailers, as the Times puts it, “can operate like bouncers, rejecting anyone they wish.” What do you get for your money and connections? A door, instead of bars; safe distance from violent offenders; and little, if any, contact with non-paying inmates. They can, depending on the administrators, bring with them an iPod, cellphone, and even a computer. As one “client” put it: “It’s safe, and everyone here is really nice”—although it’s still prison. This sounds hauntingly like the big-time drug dealers who operate out of South American prisons and buy whatever they want. Having spent more than three decades in prisons and jails, I can appreciate the desire for a clean, decent, and safe place to serve your time. Still, it’s hard to imagine a worse indictment of conditions in American prisons than this story. As the “client” quoted in the story understands, the loss of freedom is the punishment for her actions. It is society expressing its disapproval for what she did. In other words, it is justice. On the other hand, the deplorable conditions she paid extra to avoid have nothing to do with justice and everything to do with our indifference toward what goes on inside our prisons. As I have told “BreakPoint” listeners and readers in the past, this indifference has consequences, not only for prisoners, but also for all of us. Most of these prisoners will eventually get out after having spent years in facilities filled with noise, filth, and fear—not exactly the stuff of successful rehabilitation. I understand why these “clients” want to avoid these deplorable conditions. I was in prison, after all. But creating what is, in effect, a two-tiered prison system for haves and have-nots will only build resentment and anger in already seething prisons. Treating people who committed similar crimes differently only further erodes confidence in the fairness of the legal system and the rule of law generally. That confidence is based on the belief that “the system is supposed to be equitable.” Instead, we ought to improve conditions for all inmates: Start with asking which inmates really belong behind bars in the first place, and then really commit to making prisons safer. Then maybe travel agents can stick to hotels.  
Today's BreakPoint Offer
Please donate online today to help the work of Prison Fellowship and BreakPoint. Or call 1-877-322-5527. Thank you!  
For Further Reading and Information
Jennifer Steinhauer, “For $82 a Day, Booking a Cell in a 5-Star Jail,” New York Times, 29 April 2007. Professor Stephen Bainbridge, “Crime and Punishment Mitigated at $82 per Day,”, 29 April 2007. Faith Schwartz, “Convenient Correction,” The Point, 30 April 2007. Roberto Rivera, “Re: Convenient Correction,” The Point, 30 April 2007. Catherine Claire, “What the Dickens Are They Thinking?” The Point, 1 May 2007. Learn more about restorative justice efforts at Justice Fellowship’s website. And sign up for the free Justice eReport.


Chuck Colson


  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Sign up for the Daily Commentary