Upgrade your jail cell - for a price

Some people convicted of serious crimes pay for better digs

This story was published in partnership with the Marshall Project

Alan Wurtzel met Carole Markin on Match.com in 2010. On their first date, he took her to coffee. After their second date, he walked Markin to her door, followed her inside and, she said, forced her to perform oral sex.

Wurtzel later claimed the act was consensual, but in 2011 he pleaded no contest to sexual battery and was sentenced to a year in jail. Markin was disappointed in the short sentence, but she still believed a measure of justice would be served with her assailant locked behind bars at the Los Angeles County Jail.

Instead, Wurtzel, who also had been convicted of sexual battery in a previous case, found a better option: For $100 a night, he was permitted by the court to avoid county jail entirely. He did his time in Seal Beach’s small city jail, with amenities that included flat-screen TVs, a computer room and new beds. He served six months, at a cost of $18,250, according to jail records.

Markin learned about Wurtzel’s upgraded jail stay only recently, from a reporter. “I feel like, ‘Why did I go through this?’” she said.

In what is commonly called “pay-to-stay” or “private jail,” a constellation of small city jails — at least 26 of them in Los Angeles and Orange counties — open their doors to defendants who can afford the option. But what started out as an antidote to overcrowding has 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.

An analysis by the Marshall Project and the Los Angeles Times of the more than 3,500 people who served time in Southern California’s pay-to-stay programs from 2011 through 2015 found more than 160 participants who had been convicted of serious crimes including assault, robbery, domestic violence, battery, sexual assault, sexual abuse of children and possession of child pornography.

Breaking down pay-to-stay convictions

More than 3,500 people participated in pay-to-stay programs in Southern California from 2011 through 2015. An analysis found 4.5% of the cases involved serious offenses, labeled injurious or sex crimes in the table below.

Source: individual city jails.

They include a hip-hop choreographer who had sex with an underage girl; a former Los Angeles police officer who stalked and threatened his ex-wife; and a college student who stabbed a man in the abdomen during a street scuffle.

Like Wurtzel, those defendants were convicted of felonies, which can end in a state prison sentence. But judges have the discretion to order some felony offenders to serve time in county jails. In those cases, judges can also allow a defendant to serve the time in a city jail.

Pay-to-stay jail assignments involve only a small fraction of the tens of thousands of inmates sent to detention centers in Southern California each year. But allowing some defendants to avoid the region’s notoriously dangerous county jails has long rankled some in law enforcement who believe it runs counter to the spirit of equal justice.

The region’s pay-to-stay jails took in nearly $7 million from the programs from 2011 through 2015, according to revenue figures provided by the cities. In attracting paying customers, some cities openly tout their facilities as safer, cleaner and with more modern amenities. The Santa Ana jail’s website, for example, notes that jail is a “highly disruptive experience” and promotes its jail as a place where criminals can serve their time in a “less intimidating environment.”

“The whole criminal justice system is becoming more and more about: How much money do you have? Can you afford better attorneys? Can you afford to pay for a nicer place to stay?” said John Eum, a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department who investigated the hip-hop choreographer.

Pay to stay is not cheap. From 2011 through 2015, the average cost of a stay — which can last from just one day to more than a year — was $1,756.

The most expensive stay, according to jail records, was $72,050, paid by a man responsible for a drunken freeway crash that killed one of his passengers.

A racial breakdown of pay-to-stay participants could not be determined because complete data were unavailable.

Some defendants have done repeated stints in the pay-to-stay system, the analysis showed.

Wurtzel, a one-time real estate developer, was one of them. In 2004, six years before the assault on Markin, he was accused of sexually assaulting women he lured to his Pacific Palisades home through an ad for a live-in housekeeper. He pleaded no contest in 2007 to misdemeanor sexual battery of two women, one of whom was an undercover officer, and was sentenced to 135 weekends in jail. He split his time between Hawthorne’s pay-to-stay jail at $75 a night and Glendale’s jail, which then cost $85 a night.

Wurtzel declined to comment. His defense attorney, Robert Schwartz, said that pay-to-stay jails were the appropriate place for his client, a convicted sex offender then in his 60s. “There’s a pecking order among inmates…he’s not somebody who would do well,” said Schwartz. “It’s still jail. There’s still the loss of freedom.” The judge in the case declined to comment.

Most pay-to-stay jails have a sales pitch centered around security, but defendants also comparison-shop like consumers for amenities and flexibility. After he pleaded no contest to statutory rape of a 14-year-old girl who attended his South L.A. church in 2011, Leonel Pelayo, then 45, compiled a list of every pay-to-stay jail he could find.

“County jail, you’re verbally abused, physically abused by everybody,” said Pelayo, who was a church leader. “I didn’t want to spend one day there.”

Leonel Pelayo (LAPD)

He eventually settled on the jail in Seal Beach, paying $18,250 for the privilege, jail records show.

“What I don’t agree with is people saying that’s not enough [punishment],” Pelayo said. “What’s the concept of punishment? Is it the time, or getting beat up every other day in jail?”

Brutality and overcrowding have long plagued the Los Angeles and Orange County jail systems. They are the only adult jails in California currently under Justice Department scrutiny over concerns such as unsafe prisoner conditions, and similar allegations have been made by civil rights attorneys dating back to the 1970s.

A legislative crackdown on drunk driving in the 1980s strained already overcrowded county jails, and a few small city jails with unused beds in Los Angeles County offered to take the spillover, as long as the inmate paid a daily rate for his or her costs. The applications poured in, many from inmates worried about the risk of assault in crowded county lockups. City jails in Orange County soon set up similar programs.

Today, there are nearly 200 city jail beds for rent in Los Angeles and Orange counties, which have taken the most advantage of the option, by far. A Los Angeles Times-Marshall Project review of jails statewide showed only one pay-to-stay program outside Southern California — in Fremont, near San Francisco.

“We bend over backwards to make sure their basic needs are met. But they have to remember, it’s still a jail,” said Sgt. Steve Bowles, who runs Seal Beach’s pay-to-stay jail. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Inmates crowd a dorm room inside the Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles. Brutality and overcrowding have long plagued the Los Angeles and Orange County jail systems. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times) View more photos

The California penal code section that allows people to serve county jail sentences in city jails specifies that the option is available for misdemeanor offenses committed in the same county where the pay-to-stay jail is located. But in practice, judges have allowed offenders convicted of felonies to participate in pay-to-stay — and allowed others to take advantage of the program even though they committed their crimes elsewhere.

Nearly every pay-to-stay program welcomes people whose crimes have taken place across county or even state lines. In Southern California, city jails have housed more than 200 people who broke the law in Arizona, for instance, and have also accepted clients with arrests as far away as Iowa, Washington, Minnesota and Montana, a review of the data shows.

Prices vary widely, with each city setting its own rate. Defendants can get a bargain-basement bed in La Verne for $25 a night or pay a modest $75 a night in Hawthorne. Or they can splurge, paying $198 a night in Redondo Beach or $251 a night in Hermosa Beach. Monterey Park even offers the option of serving time in half-day increments, for $51. “We just basically let them book their time,” said D.J. Casey, the lead records clerk for Monterey Park’s Police Department. “Sometimes they call and cancel and say, ‘My kid’s sick.’”

On average, defendants served 18 days in pay-to-stay jails, the analysis found. Most facilities offer bunk beds and shared common areas. The programs vary in size from one cell, which contains two beds, a refrigerator, phone and television, in Fullerton, to an eight-bed dorm room in Montebello.

Two programs, in Monrovia and Whittier, do not allow overnight stays; participants come in for shifts to do janitorial work and other duties. Most programs require paying inmates to perform chores in the jail.

City jail administrators say they provide a valuable alternative for those who may be particularly vulnerable in county jail, such as sex offenders, celebrities and very young or old inmates. Jail administrators say they have to maintain a reputation for being sufficiently punitive or judges will refuse to send inmates their way.

“We bend over backwards to make sure their basic needs are met. But they have to remember, it’s still a jail,” said Sgt. Steve Bowles, who runs Seal Beach’s pay-to-stay jail. “We’re just another option…it’s not the Four Seasons by any means.”

‘This is like paradise’: Seal Beach’s pay-to-stay program actively markets its jail, attracting deep-pocketed offenders

The Times-Marshall Project review showed that much of the pay-to-stay program has stayed true to the original spirit: The majority of defendants who served time in the facilities from 2011 through 2015 — 79% — had driven under the influence or committed other driving-related offenses.

But in dozens of other cases, the crimes were more serious.

Nearly 3% of cases involved violence or the threat of violence to another person, including more than five dozen assault or battery cases, almost four dozen domestic violence cases, and a robbery. Among them were a pair of defendants who jointly attacked two sheriff’s deputies; two motorcycle gang members who assaulted a man in a bar fight; and a man who hurled his girlfriend against the couch in a jealous rage, breaking her jaw.

The review of the data also showed that nearly five dozen people — about 1.5% of the total — were convicted of sex crimes, most of them involving abuse of minors, including child molestation, possession of child pornography and statutory rape.

At least seven people served time in pay-to-stay programs after causing fatal vehicular accidents.

Some prosecutions were marred by imperfect witnesses or murky circumstances. But it is not clear if judges considered that when allowing defendants to serve time in pay-to-stay jails.

In October 2011, Eric Lund was walking with a friend in Huntington Beach when they clashed with Tanner Mester on the street. A war of words escalated into a brawl, and Lund stabbed Mester in the abdomen.

Tanner Mester shows his scar where he was stabbed in the chest. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times) View more photos

They had lived distinctly different lives. Lund was a 21-year-old student at the UCLA. Mester, who still had gang tattoos from repeated stints behind bars, was a former drug addict. At age 30, when he encountered Lund, he was clean, caring for a newborn and starting a plumbing business.

Their experiences with the justice system turned out to be different, too.

Lund, who argued self-defense, pleaded guilty to felony aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and faced up to eight years in state prison. As part of a deal, he was granted probation with a year in jail. The judge agreed that for $100 a night, Lund would serve his sentence in Seal Beach. The total price tag for Lund’s year-long sentence was $36,550, including a small administrative fee, according to jail records.

Lund said he was hesitant to take his chances with a jury. “Once I knew I would get private jail versus Orange County jail, the year was a no brainer,” Lund wrote in an email sent through his current lawyer.

Eric Lund’s booking photo. (Huntington Beach Police Department)

Mester, who needed two surgeries to repair internal damage to his stomach and liver, had no idea it was possible in California to pay for special jail accommodations. “They tried to tell me he was afraid of the general population … but that’s part of jail,” he said in a recent interview. “That’s what makes you not want to go back, it being such a horrible experience.”

The prosecutor on the case, Lynda Fernandez, said she agreed to allow pay-to-stay after weighing the strength of the case against Lund. “I try to do justice the best way I can,” Fernandez said.

It is ultimately a judge’s choice whether to permit a defendant to enter a pay-to-stay program. But judges were not eager to talk about their decision-making. More than a dozen judges in Los Angeles and Orange counties declined interview requests. Some city officials were also reluctant to disclose information, with five city jails declining to comply with public records requests until lawyers for the Marshall Project intervened. One, Baldwin Park, said it did not keep records prior to 2016.

Pay-to-stay participants
by jail and offense

Source: individual city jails.

The pay-to-stay option can be frustrating for victims.

Shane Sparks, a choreographer with credits on the reality shows “So You Think You Can Dance” and “America's Best Dance Crew,” met Monique Fronti in the 1990s at the Los Angeles dance studio where he worked and she was a student. They began having sex a week before her 13th birthday, she later alleged.

At the time, Fronti said, she felt forced into having sex and powerless to stop it. In 2009, she talked to a therapist, who reported the alleged abuse to police. Sparks admitted to a detective to having a sexual relationship with Fronti but said it was consensual. In a recent interview, Sparks said he assumed Fronti was of legal age because she sometimes worked behind the front desk.

Sparks pleaded no contest in 2011 to sexual intercourse with a minor under the age of 16 and served 135 days in Alhambra’s jail. Although a judge said Sparks had to serve his time within a year, he took two years to finish as he continued working and traveling internationally, according to court and jail records.

“It was actually a retreat for me,” Sparks said of his time in jail. He wore his own clothes and brought his own bedding and food, he said. He said he spent most of the time editing musical recordings on his computer.

Shane Sparks (Chris Polk / FilmMagic)

“He got to take what he wanted from me and take what he wanted from the court,” Fronti said recently. “And at no point did I feel like I had justice.”

Los Angeles Deputy Dist. Atty. Alison Foster said the difficulty of proving a 15-year-old case and Sparks’ clean record in the intervening years were all considerations in agreeing to the pay-to-stay sentence. She called it “an unusual set of facts and not something that is considered in most felony cases.”

The state agency overseeing California’s jails is the Board of State and Community Corrections, which inspects the facilities every two years. But the board does not monitor whether or how much jails charge for their services, what kind of defendants they allow, or what amenities are available. City jail administrators say they carefully screen applicants and are willing to eject inmates who do not follow the rules.

One of the most attractive conveniences in pay-to-stay programs — not available at county jail — is the option to go on work furlough, which allows people to go to their jobs with an ankle bracelet and return to the jail in the evenings to sleep. At least eight city jails offer work furlough, and most of the other pay-to-stay facilities allow people to serve time on weekends. The Los Angeles County jail has no weekend option, although Orange County does.

For Robby Johnson, though, work furlough offered another opportunity. Johnson, a former Los Angeles Police Department officer, pleaded guilty in 2012 to stalking and harassing his ex-wife. He was sentenced to one year in jail and was allowed to serve in Seal Beach.

Time served in pay-to-stay

Includes only cities with at least 50 participants from 2011 to 2015. Data exclude those for whom the city could not provide lengths of stay. Source: individual city jails.

For $120 a day, totaling more than $32,000 for 272 days, Johnson left the facility each weekday to work as a guard for American Corporate Security and teach fitness classes. But when recently contacted by reporters, those employers said they did not know Johnson was serving jail time and that they believed he forged letters from them to secure a judge’s permission to leave jail.

In an interview, Johnson said his employers knew that he was in legal trouble, but when asked whether they were aware he was commuting to work from jail, he responded “probably not.”

“If I would have told [my employers], I would have not been employed. And when you’re not employed, you go to prison.” Johnson no longer works for American Corporate Security. The company would not provide details about when or why he left.

The L.A. and Orange County district attorney’s offices said they have no set policy or procedure for agreeing to pay-to-stay sentences.

“Each case is decided on its own merits,” Los Angeles County district attorney spokeswoman Jane Robison wrote in an email. Susan Kang Schroeder, chief of staff for the Orange County district attorney, said a pay-to-stay sentence for a serious crime is “not something we take lightly.”

“We didn’t create the system,” Schroeder said. “So we have to work within it and figure out what is in the best interest of a case. You could even say that if it helps the taxpayer save money, that’s always a good thing.”

Luicci Nader is one young defendant who realizes his situation could have been much worse.

At age 18, he crashed his Ferrari on Christmas Eve 2009, killing his cousin. Prosecutors alleged that he was speeding, and in 2012, he pleaded guilty to felony vehicular manslaughter.

Nader blamed the car’s speed on a computer malfunction. He said his family spent more than $1 million on attorneys fees and automotive experts for his defense. His family paid more than $18,000 for his jail stay.

Nader spent six months in jail doing chores, praying, reading novels and reflecting.

“I was lucky,” he said. “A less fortunate person in my shoes should have the same option.”

Tenny Tatusian and Michael Phillis contributed research to this article.

This story was reported in partnership with the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system.

How We Crunched California’s Pay-to-Stay Data: A guide to our methodology

Credits: 360 photos by Allen Schaben. Produced by Lily Mihalik. Additional programming by Armand Emamdjomeh and Evan Wagstaff.