Would prison be so bad if your cell was spacious and included a private bathroom, kitchen and cable TV? These are the accommodations for some prisoners at San Pedro prison in La Paz, Bolivia. But luxury isn’t free: For about $1,000-1,500, an inmate can purchase a high-class cell for the duration of his or her sentence.
San Pedro is divided into eight sections ranging from shared small cells with risks of stabbings at night to the opulent cells that have access to billiard tables and fresh juice stands. Every person must buy or rent a cell, no matter the quality, and many inmates have jobs as hairdressers, laundry staff, food stall operators or TV repairmen.
Does the idea of paying for better prison accommodations sound ludicrous? Would you bet this could never happen in the U.S.?
Would prison be so bad if your cell was spacious and included a private bathroom, kitchen and cable TV?
In California there are multiple jails with “pay-to-stay” programs where inmates can pay from $75-155 a day for a private cell in quiet areas away from violent offenders, and they are occasionally allowed to bring in an iPod or computer for entertainment. They must be approved for the program and their crimes are usually minor offenses. The ACLU is not a fan, calling the program a “jail for the rich.”
Supporters of pay-to-stay say they benefit the cities where they are located by providing revenue. For example, if the Fremont, Calif. jail — which spends $8.35 a day on each inmate — houses 16 inmates for two nights per week a year, the city would net a profit of about $244,000. One immediate question is whether cities should make a profit off of prisoners. Another question has to do with equality.
Two people who commit the same crime but end up in different facilities depending on their ability to pay isn’t exactly equitable, but the American incarceration system doesn’t have the best record when it comes to treating the poor and rich equally. Consider the prisons for white-collar versus blue-collar criminals or the conflicted opinions on whether bail fines are fair or the rise of debtors’ prisons.
The ACLU is not a fan, calling the program a ’jail for the rich.’
But what if you weren’t allowed to use Daddy’s dollars to secure better living conditions while serving time for a DUI? What if, instead, you started out the same as every other inmate, regardless of personal wealth or outside resources?
Could a fairer option be that you start your sentence with a financial blank slate, earn money by taking jobs inside the prison or jail and then apply your self-earned dollars to book a nicer and more comfortable living situation? Should prisoners be allowed to pay to upgrade the quality of their cells, or should the nature of their crime be the sole factor in how they live out their prison terms?
Why you should care
If we follow San Pedro prison’s example and allow prisoners to buy luxurious accommodations, the economy of incarceration – and the idea of fairness – will change completely.