Celebrity Justice: Prison Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous
There are two criminal justice systems in the United States. One is for people with wealth, fame or influence who can afford to hire top-notch attorneys and public relations firms, who make campaign contributions to sheriffs, legislators and other elected officials, and who enjoy certain privileges due to their celebrity status or the size of their bank accounts. The other justice system is for everybody else.
As one example of this dichotomy, for over a decade suburban jails in Southern California have been renting upscale cells to affluent people convicted of crimes in Los Angeles County. These pay-to-stay programs, also called self-pay jails, cost wealthy prisoners between $45 and $175 a day and include such amenities as iPods, cell phones, computers, private cells and work release programs. Some even let prisoners (who are referred to as “clients”) bring in their own food.
This nicer-jail-stay-for-pay scheme not only allows the rich and famous – as well as the more modestly affluent – to avoid the brutality, squalor, abysmal medical care and other unpleasant conditions typical in public jail systems. It also highlights the inequities of a two-track system of justice in the United States in which the wealthy enjoy privileges and perks behind bars while the poor are resigned to less comfortable and more dangerous conditions of confinement.
The disparity in the U.S. criminal justice system begins with arrest. The poor are often arrested during SWAT-type raids in the middle of the night that leave their front doors, and possibly their entire homes, in a shambles. The affluent are frequently allowed to “turn themselves in,” usually accompanied by their attorney. This assumes that people with means and influence are arrested in the first place, of course.
For example, when musician Robert Ritchie (known as Kid Rock) was stopped by a Vanderbilt police officer in Nash-ville, Tennessee in February 2005, the officer chose not to perform a sobriety test and instead issued a warning. He also got Kid Rock’s autograph. “We don’t have any way of knowing, had the field-sobriety test been done, how that would have come out,” said Vanderbilt Police Captain Pat Cunningham. At the time of the traffic stop Kid Rock was wanted for punch-ing a D.J. at a strip club earlier that night.
Following arrest, poor defendants often have to sit in jail – sometimes for years while their cases wind through the court system – while those with sufficient funds can afford to make bond. For the very rich, bail can range into the millions of dollars, which they can easily pay.
Indigent prisoners are represented by overworked and underfunded public defenders with huge caseloads, or court-appointed attorneys who may or may not be experienced or competent in criminal cases. Wealthy defendants can hire private counsel or even a team of lawyers. In the O.J. Simpson murder prosecution, Simpson’s “dream team,” headed by late attorney Johnnie Cochran, cost an estimated $3-6 million.
The one place in the criminal justice system where there was at least an appearance of equality among the economic classes was incarceration. Jail was jail for both the rich and poor. Now even that bastion of equal treatment has fallen with the rise of pay-to-stay jails for well-off prisoners who can afford them.
“It really exemplifies the two-tier nature of the American criminal justice system, where you have one system of justice for the poor and politically unconnected and another system of justice for the wealthy and politically connected,” said PLN editor Paul Wright.
Pay-to-Stay Jails at Hotel Prices
Theoretically there are only two situations that call for incarceration: a criminal conviction that results in a prison or jail sentence, or because a defendant awaiting trial is considered a flight risk or danger to public safety. In the latter regard, the rich and famous are given the benefit of the doubt as to their level of “risk” while the poor are almost always consid-ered risky. After all, they have fewer resources and thus less to lose if they jump bail.
Even when wealthy offenders have to do jail time, in Southern California they can ameliorate their conditions of con-finement by renting cells at pay-to-stay facilities. In Los Angeles and Orange Counties, the cities of Alhambra, Anaheim, Burbank, Culver City, Fullerton, Glendale, Hermosa Beach, Huntington Beach, La Verne, Montebello, Pasadena, San Gabriel Valley, Santa Ana, Seal Beach, South Bay and Torrance offer pay-to-stay jails, some of which amount to incar-ceration vacations.
Pasadena has the largest program with 2,226 prisoners paying to stay at the city’s jail in 2007, which generated about $234,000. The jail has advertised its program with a pamphlet that echoes holiday resort language. “Serve your time in our clean, safe secure facility! ... We are the finest jail in Southern California,” the brochure proclaims. Pay-to-stay prison-ers in Pasadena have access to an exercise bike and can watch DVD’s. The cost? Just $135 a day.
The tiny four-bunk jail in La Verne, where actor Christian Slater served 59 days in 1998 for battery and drug offenses, might vie for Pasadena’s claim of having the finest pay-to-stay facility.
The La Verne jail charges work release prisoners $45 per day; those who serve “straight time” pay only $7.50 a day but have to perform work duties such as cleaning or laundry. In both cases the per diem rates are in addition to a one-time $270 administrative fee. Pay-to-stay prisoners are allowed to have food delivered – a major perk for anyone who has had the misfortune of sampling typical jailhouse fare.
Santa Ana refers to its $82-a-day self-pay jail as “the most modern and comfortable facility in the region.” The jail hosts “a full range of alternatives to traditional incarceration” – with “traditional” presumably referring to conditions experi-enced by the vast majority of poor prisoners who can’t afford to shell out $82 a day. The Santa Ana jail offers flexible work release schedules for prisoners who work weekends and nights, plus “24-hour on-site medical staff.” Additionally, the fa-cility has “helped clients with sentences from other counties as well as other states.” So long as they can pay, of course.
When Pasadena began to offer pay-to-stay jail beds in the early 1990’s, it realized the need to advertise the program. “Our sales pitch at that time was, ‘Bad things happen to good people,’” said Pasadena Police Department spokesperson Janet Givens. Representatives from the jail went to community venues such as Rotary Clubs looking for potential “fee-paying inmate workers” who would pay to stay at the facility. “People might have brothers, sisters, cousins, etc. who might have had a lapse in judgment and do not want to go to county jail,” Givens noted.
That attitude is a marked contrast to more traditional jails that hold detainees unable to make bond, much less pay thousands of dollars a month for safer and more comfortable conditions.
Indeed, most prisoners are portrayed by law en-forcement and corrections officials as incorrigible, dangerous criminals who deserve punishment – even pre-trial detain-ees who have not been convicted. Apparently that assessment changes when wealthy prisoners are able to pay for their room and board.
Driving the demand for pay-to-stay cells (for those who can afford them) are the deplorable conditions in the Los An-geles County jails, where, according to a Michigan Law Review article, “about 21,000 detainees are held in filthy cells so overcrowded – four men in a cell built for two, six to a four-man cell – that federal judge Dean D. Pregerson observed in 2006 inmates must stay in their bunks at all times because there is not enough room for them to stand.” Gang activity is rampant in the LA jails, as is gratuitous violence that has led to a number of prisoner-on-prisoner murders.
In 2006, funding cuts forced Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca to reduce staff until there was only one guard per 100 prisoners. The national average is one guard per 10 prisoners. More than 85% of the jail population is composed of pre-trial detainees, most being held on non-violent drug and property charges. Instead of protecting them from violence – a nearly impossible task due to overcrowding and understaffing – guards tell frightened new arrivals they have to “Be a man. Stand up and fight.” Given a choice, and sufficient funds, is it any wonder that well-off prisoners would pay to stay elsewhere?
“It seems to be a little unfair,” said Mike Jackson, training manager for the National Sheriff’s Association. “Two people come in, have the same offense, and the guy who has money gets to pay to stay and the other doesn’t. The system is supposed to be equitable.”
Celling Celebrities in California
Proponents of self-pay jails often say they are only used for first-time, non-violent offenders. A review of the celebri-ties who have graced such facilities belies that claim. In 1998, for example, Christian Slater spent 59 days of a 90-day sentence at the La Verne jail for battery and drug violations. He reportedly beat his girlfriend and kicked a police officer down a flight of stairs. Also, rapper and music producer Dr. Dre, whose real name is Andre Young, served five months in the Pasadena jail on a probation violation in 1994 after pleading no contest to DUI.
He was on probation for battery after breaking another rap producer’s jaw. While at the Pasadena jail, Dr. Dre was allowed to film a music video with late rap-per Tupac Shakur.
Other high-profile prisoners who have paid to opt out of the dangerous and crowded Los Angeles County jails include actors Kiefer Sutherland and Gary Collins, and former Orange County Assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo.
Collins spent a total of 96 hours at the $85-a-day Glendale jail for a 2008 DUI conviction, while Sutherland served 48 days at Glendale, also for DUI. Sutherland was not in the work release program and thus had to work in the jail’s kitchen and laundry details, but he had a single cell. “After Kiefer and Gary, we got inundated with calls, so we actually have peo-ple lined up through the summer,” said Glendale jail administrator Juan Lopez.
Yet things do not always go smoothly for prominent prisoners even after they’re accepted by a pay-to-stay jail. In Jaramillo’s case, the prosecutor objected to his plan to serve his one-year sentence at the Fullerton jail because that would allow him to use a cell phone and personal computer, plus bring in his own food.
“We certainly did not envision a jail with cell phone and laptop capabilities where his family could bring him three hot meals,” said a spokesperson for the Orange County district attorney’s office. “We felt that the use of the computer was part of the instrumentality of his crime, and that is another reason we objected to that.”
Fullerton officials denied that laptops were allowed, but said the jail did permit the use of cell phones. “If you’re going to be in jail, it’s the best $75 per day you’ll ever spend in your life,” said Fullerton Police Lt. John Petropulos. “You don’t have to worry about getting beat up by a guy with a shaved head and tattoos.” The implication, of course, is that poor prisoners who can’t afford pay-to-stay jails should be worried about such violence. Jaramillo ended up serving his one-year sentence for perjury and misuse of public funds in the Montebello jail’s self-pay program. He later pleaded guilty to charges of tax evasion and money laundering in connection with a corruption investigation into former Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona. [See: PLN, Nov. 2009, p.38; Feb. 2009, p.1].
A private company called Correctional Systems, Inc. (CSI), which was acquired by private prison firm Cornell Compa-nies in 2005, runs pay-to-stay programs at city jails in Alhambra, Baldwin Park and Montebello, California, and previously operated a self-pay program in Seal Beach.
“The benefits are that you are isolated and don’t have to expose yourself to the traditional county system,” said CSI spokeswoman Christine Parker. “You can avoid gang issues. You are restricted in the number of people you are encoun-tering and they are a similar persuasion to you.” Presumably, “similar persuasion” means they are wealthy enough to af-ford rent-a-cells and thus avoid the violence and unpleasant conditions that poor prisoners have to endure while serving time in the county jail system.
The affluent simply want to be incarcerated with those of their own kind, according to Parker. But what does that mean? Jails reserved for prisoners who are rich? Fellow celebrities? The politically-connected? Is it morally or ethically defensible to allow different forms of imprisonment as punishment for crime based on a person’s wealth or social status, regardless of their “persuasion”?
This corruption of the notion of equal and impartial justice has extended, in some cases, to corruption among employ-ees at self-pay jails. In June 2007, the city of Seal Beach terminated its contract with CSI after three guards were charged with stealing a prisoner’s Sony PlayStation and falsifying documents to cover-up the theft. In 2004 another CSI guard, Alonso Machain, was charged with helping former Seal Beach jail prisoner Skylar Deleon – a former child actor – brutally murder a couple for their $440,000 yacht. [See: PLN, Feb. 2008, p.26]. Deleon and an accomplice were sentenced to death in April 2009; Machain received a 20-year, 4 month sentence in June 2009.
Seal Beach officials said they terminated the contract with CSI due to poor financial performance. They didn’t aban-don the pay-to-stay concept, though – the city now operates the program itself, renting out 30 jail beds at rates up to $120 a day.
Special Treatment for Special People
Jail experts say they aren’t aware of self-pay jails outside California. “I have never run into this,” said Ken Kerle, editor of the American Jail Association’s bimonthly magazine. “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 func-tionally illiterate. They don’t have $80 a day for jail.”
While it may be true that pay-to-stay programs are unique to California, affluent and celebrity prisoners are treated with deference in regular jails, too. This is even the case in Los Angeles County’s infamous jail system.
The luxury suite at the Los Angeles County jail is Room 7021, known to guards as the “hospital” because it’s in the former clinic, though some started calling it “The Heisman” after O.J. Simpson spent the better part of a year there. Room 7021 has housed its fair share of celebrities, including actors Robert Downey, Jr., Sean Penn, Robert Blake and Kelsey Grammer; musicians Tommy Lee of Motley Crue and Scott Weiland of the Stone Temple Pilots; and comedian Richard Pryor. In fairness, it has also held some of the most infamous prisoners in Southern California, such as “Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez and Kenneth Bianchi, one of the Hillside Stranglers.
According to a November 2002 article in the New York Times, Room 7021 offers a luxurious (by jail standards) 80 square feet of white-painted private living space, a steel door with a 9-by-9-inch window, a private phone, and that most precious of commodities for prisoners – solitude.
“This is not a hotel and we don’t give celebrities special treatment,” claimed Captain Richard Adams, supervisor of the 7,200-bed Men’s Central Jail, where Room 7021 is located. But isn’t it special treatment to provide a safe, secure, single-man cell to celebrities and other fortunate prisoners while the rest of the jail’s population is held in overcrowded conditions where violence is a constant threat?
Adams defended segregating high-profile prisoners, saying, “The guys in here will prey on them and eat them alive, so off to protective custody they go. I don’t want anyone getting hurt in here.” Of course by that he really means he doesn’t want anyone famous or rich getting hurt at the jail – since non-celebrity prisoners are regular victims of violence and sometimes-fatal medical neglect. [See, e.g.: PLN, Jan. 2010, p.40; Jan. 1, 2009, p.27; March 2008, p.40]. In fact, in a six-month period from October 2003 to April 2004, five prisoners were murdered in the Los Angeles County jail system. [See: PLN, April 2005, p.16].
Other affluent and well-connected prisoners have been afforded different types of preferential treatment by Los Ange-les officials. When Mel Gibson went on an anti-Semitic rant during a DUI arrest on July 28, 2006, details about his deroga-tory remarks were removed from the original arrest report and placed in a supplemental report not available to the media.
Three Sheriff’s Department employees were disciplined for violating policy during Gibson’s arrest. They didn’t take his palm print when he was released, failed to have him sign a notice-to-appear form, and drove him to a tow lot to get his car. Gibson spent about 8½ hours in jail before making bond; he was later sentenced to three years’ probation and or-dered to pay $1,400 in fines.
The Los Angeles County Office of Independent Review investigated allegations of Gibson’s preferential treatment by Sheriff’s Department staff, and summarized its findings in the agency’s annual report released in December 2007.
“When dealing with celebrities, law enforcement officers must walk a fine line between improper preferential treat-ment and legitimate, necessary adaptation to the challenges posed by the famous,” the report concluded.
Sometimes the line isn’t so fine. Wealthy socialite Nichole Richie was released only 82 minutes after her arrival at Los Angeles’ Century Regional Detention Facility in August 2007, where she was to serve a four-day sentence for driving un-der the influence of drugs. She admitted to using marijuana and Vicodin, a prescription pain killer, but never saw the in-side of a jail cell. Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Kerri Webb said Richie “was released early due to overcrowding in the jail system. This is standard procedure for nonviolent offenders.” Webb did not disclose how many non-wealthy, non-celebrity prisoners spent such a short time in jail.
Not to be outdone, actress Lindsay Lohan served just 84 minutes at the same facility on November 15, 2007, after pleading guilty to two cocaine-related charges and no contest to reckless driving and two counts of DUI. The Sheriff’s De-partment denied any special treatment. She had been sentenced to one day in jail, three years’ probation and 10 days community service, and ordered to attend an alcohol abuse program. After Lohan failed to participate in the program, in-stead of being revoked her probation was extended another year.
In May 2006, actress Michelle Rodriguez, who starred in “The Fast and the Furious,” “Resident Evil” and “Avatar,” and the TV series “Lost,” received a 60-day sentence for violating probation due to a DUI charge. She had been placed on three years’ probation several years earlier after pleading no contest to hit and run, DUI and driving with a suspended li-cense. Rodriguez was released from jail after serving just four hours and 20 minutes of her two-month sentence.
“Needless to say, our prosecutors are not happy about this,” said a spokesperson for the City Attorney’s office. “But the sheriffs have a policy to let some nonviolent offenders go early, in part due to jail overcrowding.”
Rodriquez violated her probation again in September 2007 for failing to complete community service work. The court sentenced her to 180 days in jail, and found her to be ineligible for work release or house arrest. She spent just 18 days at the Century Regional Detention Facility before being released on January 9, 2008, again due to overcrowding.
“The sheriff supports, obviously, the desire to have inmates serve their full sentence,” but the county’s single women’s jail was “bursting at the seams,” a Sheriff’s Department spokesperson said. Evidently, though, the sheriff doesn’t support his desire to have celebrities serve their full jail terms enough to make them do more than a fraction of their sentences.
A well-publicized case of special treatment involved millionaire socialite Paris Hilton, who was released to house ar-rest in June 2007 after serving only three days of her 45-day sentence for a suspended license offense while on three years’ probation for reckless driving. Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca ordered her early release due to an unspeci-fied medical condition – although the jail could apparently accommodate non-celebrity prisoners with medical conditions. Indeed, the Office of Independent Review noted that “it is extremely rare for the Department to release someone from jail early due to medical issues.”
Sheriff Baca denied any special treatment. “My message to those who don’t like celebrities is that punishing celebri-ties more than the average American is not justice,” he remarked. County officials noted that nonviolent female prisoners serve only a small portion of their sentences due to early release policies.
Regardless, a Superior Court judge ordered Hilton to return to jail; she ended up serving 23 days of her 45-day sen-tence and was released on June 26, 2007. She was housed in a 12-bed “special needs” unit separate from the jail’s other 2,200 prisoners, and issued new jail uniforms that had not been previously worn (purportedly because the facility didn’t have any existing uniforms in her size). Hilton was also allowed to make a late-night phone call from the jail to TV host Barbara Walters.
Preferential treatment was extended to Hilton’s parents, who were allowed to cut in front of hours-long visitors’ waiting lines, and the visitation area was closed to other prisoners and their families while the Hiltons visited. A spokesman said it was normal for high-profile prisoners to visit when the visitation room was closed during lunchtime. It was later reported that Hilton’s grandfather, billionaire William Barron Hilton, had donated $3,000 to Sheriff Baca’s election campaign.
“This is L.A.,” noted Sheriff’s Department spokesman Steve Whitmore. “The mayor, the City Council and other elected officials all have people in show business who donate to their campaigns.”
At least Hilton didn’t receive special treatment in one area – she had to eat the same meals as other prisoners. “The food was horrible. It was jail food; it’s not supposed to be good,” she stated. “Lunch was basically a bologna sandwich. They call it mystery meat. It’s pretty scary. Two pieces of bread and some mayonnaise.”
Orange County, California has also provided preferential treatment to celebrity prisoners. For instance, Roger Avary, movie director and co-author of the screenplay for the Oscar-winning film Pulp Fiction, was sentenced to a year in jail for killing a friend in a car accident while driving drunk in January 2008. Prosecutors had requested a six-year sentence.
Upon reporting to jail on October 26, 2009, Avary was immediately placed in a program that allowed him to work dur-ing the day and report to a furlough facility at night and on weekends. He posted tweets describing his supposed time in jail until a blogger questioned how he was accessing Twitter while incarcerated.
Avary was moved to the Ventura County Jail on November 25, 2009 after his placement in the furlough program be-came known, due to “security issues.” He presently remains at the jail, where he is serving the rest of his one-year sen-tence for gross vehicular homicide and DUI.
Amenities for Favored Few in Arizona
Special treatment for celebrities extends beyond California to neighboring Arizona, where Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the infamous self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff in America,” has proven to be not-so-tough on famous prison-ers. When Grammy-winning singer Glen Campbell received a 10-day sentence in June 2004 for extreme DUI and leaving the scene of an accident, he didn’t stay at the Maricopa County Jail’s infamous Tent City, where prisoners wear striped uniforms and pink underwear, are fed green bologna sandwiches and live in harsh conditions in open-air tents.
Instead, Campbell served his time at an air-conditioned facility that guards call the “Mesa Hilton.” He was allowed to leave the jail for 12 hours a day on work furloughs. While incarcerated he had access to his cell phone, a guitar and a thera-peutic mattress, and was given a private cell. Perhaps in gratitude for such leniency, Campbell agreed to perform a 30-minute concert for 1,000 prisoners at Tent City and mugged with Arpaio for members of the press. “They put me up to this,” he said jokingly ... or perhaps not so jokingly.
Also, in May 2003, Sheriff Arpaio allowed Mandie Brooke Colangelo, daughter of sports celebrity Jerry Colangelo (former owner of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and the MLB’s Arizona Diamondbacks), to serve an 11-day DUI sentence at the Mesa Hilton instead of the county’s Estrella Jail, which has been described as a “hellhole.” Colangelo was allowed her own food and could use a cell phone, and left for up to 12 hours a day to work and care for her children. Eight months later her father sponsored a major fund-raising event for Arpaio’s re-election campaign, attracting hundreds of influential donors and raising $50,000 for the sheriff.
Similarly, Arpaio allowed Joseph Deihl II, the son of a wealthy business executive, to serve his 15-day sentence at the Mesa Hilton in January 2004. Deihl had been convicted of solicitation of prostitution, and his family donated $11,700 to Arpaio’s re-election campaign while the case was on appeal. Deihl was allowed to leave the facility from 9:00 a.m. until 9:00 p.m. to work, and reportedly brought his own food and a cell phone to the jail. [See: PLN, March 2007, p.14].
When former basketball star Charles Barkley had to serve three days for drunk driving in March 2009, he didn’t get the five-star treatment at the Mesa Hilton. However, he did get his own private tent in Tent City and his meals were deliv-ered to him. Barkley’s sentence started at 8:00 a.m. on Saturday when he reported to jail. He was allowed to leave on Sunday from 8:00 a.m. until 8:00 p.m., then left on Monday at 8:00 a.m. and did not return. Thus his 10-day sentence, which had been reduced to 3 days by the court, was further cut to 36 hours. Barkley gave an inspirational talk to other prisoners during his brief stay at Tent City, with Arpaio at his side. Ironically, Barkley had endorsed Arpaio’s autobiogra-phy twelve years earlier.
Former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson had to serve his sentence for felony cocaine possession and misde-meanor DUI at the Tent City jail, too – all 24 hours of it. Although he faced more than 4 years in prison, Tyson spent only one day at the jail in November 2007; he also received three years’ probation and was ordered to perform 360 hours of community service. He was kept in a separate area of Tent City apart from other prisoners and met with Arpaio for a photo op. Tyson did have to wear a striped uniform and pink underwear, pink socks and pink handcuffs – a small price to pay for serving one day behind bars on a felony drug charge despite being a repeat convicted felon.
Paying-to-Stay at Home
The East Coast has its own version of pay-to-stay: well-to-do prisoners stay in their own homes instead of jail if they can afford security guards to watch over them. When 70-year-old former NASDAQ chairman Bernie Madoff was facing a lengthy prison sentence for defrauding billions of dollars from investors in a massive Ponzi scheme, legitimate questions were raised as to whether he was a flight risk and should be denied bail.
Regardless, Madoff was allowed to stay out of jail under house arrest in his $7 million Manhattan penthouse, so long as he footed the bill for around-the-clock private security guards to both protect him from harm and prevent him from flee-ing. Madoff was also required to post bond, wear an electronic monitor and surrender his passport.
The security firm that provided Madoff’s “bail monitoring,” Casale Associates, was founded by former New York police detective Nicholas Casale – who, incidentally, had been fired from his high-ranking security position at New York’s Metro-politan Transportation Authority in May 2003 after being accused of misleading investigators in connection with a corrup-tion probe.
Madoff eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced on June 29, 2009 to 150 years in prison – an unusual outcome for someone so wealthy, but then the extent of his crime was unusual, too. Estimated actual losses for the individuals and organizations defrauded by Madoff were $18 billion. The JEHT Foundation, a major funder of criminal justice reform ef-forts, had to shut down due to Madoff’s scam. [See: PLN, June 2009, p.34].
A similar stay-at-home bail monitoring arrangement was allowed in the case of Marc S. Dreier, a New York attorney who stole $700 million from clients and investors in an elaborate fraud scheme. Dreier was released from jail and placed on house arrest in February 2009 after he agreed to pay $70,000 a month for full-time live-in guards from Pathfinder Con-sultants International, a private security firm. Dreier’s family co-signed a $10 million personal recognizance bond and paid for the guards. He had to remove all cell phones, computers, knives and potential weapons from his home, visitors were pre-approved and pre-screened by court officials, and he was required to wear an electronic monitor.
There was also the 2007 case of Mahender and Varsha Sabhnani, a New York millionaire couple charged with en-slaving and torturing two Indonesian domestic workers. According to prosecutors their crimes involved “incomprehensible brutality and violence and inhumanity,” and constituted “modern day slavery.” Although initially incarcerated, they were released on $4.5 million bail with the condition that they post private guards inside their home.
When reviewing the Sabhnani case, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals recognized the implications of such house arrest arrangements. “The government has not argued and, therefore, we have no occasion to consider whether it would be ‘contrary to principles of detention and release on bail’ to allow wealthy defendants ‘to buy their way out’ by construct-ing a private jail,” the court wrote. See: United States v. Sabhnani, 493 F.3d 63 (2d Cir. 2007).
When asked about his role as a “bail sitter,” Ed Stroz, a former FBI agent and co-founder of security firm Stroz Fried-berg LLC, which replaced Casale Associates as Madoff’s private guard detail, was unequivocal. “The client is the court,” said Stroz. “This is not a valet service.
This is like jail outside.”
Addressing the same question, Nicholas Casale wasn’t as sure. “It’s a complex issue,” he stated. “Would you, as a bail guard, reprimand the man who signs your paychecks? Lock him in a bathroom? Tackle him if he ran out the door?”
Former FBI agent and Pathfinder president Robert M. Hart made the astonishing comment that house arrest is as bad as being locked up. “If anyone believes it’s better to be at home than at [a federal jail], he’s never been at home with armed guards in his living room 24 hours a day. You can’t go out, you’ve got no access to computers and you’re living in earshot of someone paid to watch your every move,” he explained.
Hart’s statement begs the question of why clients pay so much for his company’s bail monitoring service if it is no bet-ter than being in jail. Perhaps because it is, of course, much better to be safe and secure in your own home, preparing meals in your own kitchen and sleeping in your own bed with your lover than it is to be in an overcrowded, dangerous jail with terrible food and a small cell with a steel bunk.
There are many ethical and moral implications concerning pay-to-stay jails and in-home bail monitoring for affluent of-fenders who can afford such services. Taken to the logical extreme, should we let rich prisoners build personal private prisons so they can serve their sentences in relative comfort?
More Privileges for the Privileged
There are many other examples of wealthy and celebrity offenders whose experiences with the criminal justice sys-tem smack of favoritism.
Consider radio personality Rush Limbaugh, who was investigated in 2003 for illegally obtaining prescription drugs, in-cluding oxycodone. He acknowledged that he had an addiction to pain killers and entered a rehab program. A warrant was issued for Limbaugh’s arrest in April 2006 on a charge of doctor shopping for prescription medication; according to his medical records, he had obtained 2,000 painkillers from four doctors over a six-month period.
Limbaugh turned himself in to the Palm Beach County Jail in Florida and was released on $3,000 bail about an hour later. Under a settlement deal, prosecutors agreed to dismiss the charge if he complied with the terms of the agreement for 18 months. Those terms included not owning a gun, submitting to drug tests, continuing to participate in substance abuse treatment, and paying $30,000 to cover the cost of the doctor-shopping investigation. Poor defendants who can’t afford high-priced attorneys to negotiate such lenient deals instead face long terms of incarceration.
On June 30, 2008, billionaire investment banker Jeffrey Epstein pleaded guilty to felony charges of solicitation of pros-titution and procuring a person under the age of 18 for prostitution. Girls as young as 14 were brought to his mansion in Palm Beach, Florida, where they would strip to their underwear and give him erotic massages while he was nude. Accord-ing to a probable cause affidavit, he masturbated during the massages, used sex toys on the girls and sometimes had intercourse with them.
Epstein accepted an 18-month sentence as part of a plea agreement, and a federal investigation was dropped. He served approximately one year in the Palm Beach County Jail before being released in July 2009 to spend another year on house arrest. Epstein’s legal team included former U.S. Solicitor General Ken Starr and renowned attorney Alan Der-showitz.
Actor Charlie Sheen was arrested in Aspen, Colorado on December 25, 2009 following a domestic violence incident involving his wife that resulted in one misdemeanor and two felony charges. Despite it being Christmas Day, when most courts were closed, Sheen posted $8,500 bond and was released from the Pitkin County Jail within 8 hours. When con-tacted by PLN, jail officials denied he had received special treatment.
Sheen, whose real name is Carlos Estevez, quickly checked himself into rehab. He agreed to plead no contest to a misdemeanor offense on June 7, 2010 in exchange for a 30-day sentence with work release. That plan hit a snag, how-ever, because Sheen reportedly objected to the jail’s no-smoking rule. Also, Pitkin County Jail administrator Beverly Campbell objected to his placement in the work release program, saying the actor was ineligible for that program even though it had been approved by prosecutors and the sheriff. Sheen’s attorneys are now trying to renegotiate the plea deal down to probation in lieu of incarceration.
Not that serving time in the affluent-friendly resort town of Aspen would be so bad. According to news reports, the Pit-kin County Jail allows male and female prisoners to mingle together in shared living areas, and on Christmas Day, when Sheen was arrested, the jail served prime rib for lunch and Cornish hen for dinner.
Cameron Douglas, son of actor Michael Douglas, was arrested on federal drug charges in July 2009 when he was busted with a half-pound of meth. Although initially placed on house arrest, he was jailed after his girlfriend tried to bring him heroin.
Cameron was sentenced on April 20, 2010 to five years in federal prison plus $300,000 in fines. While that sounds like a stiff sentence, it was only half the ten-year term required under mandatory minimum sentencing laws. His sentence was reduced because he had cooperated with law enforcement officials, though the fact that his famous father, his equally famous grandfather, actor Kirk Douglas, and his stepmother, actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, all sent letters to the judge requesting leniency probably didn’t hurt either. Cameron is serving his sentence at FPC Lewisburg in Pennsylvania – a minimum-security camp with no perimeter fence.
When former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was initially sent to prison on May 25, 2010 to serve an 18 month-to-five-year sentence for trying to avoid $1 million in court-ordered restitution in an obstruction-of-justice case, he was housed in an air-conditioned room with a private shower in the medical unit at the Charles Egeler Reception and Guidance Center.
War-den Heidi Washington, who knew Kilpatrick from the time they worked at the state Capitol together, said he was isolated from other prisoners for “management reasons,” adding, “it makes things run more efficiently, more calmly and more smoothly to keep him separated.”
An anonymous guard who contacted the Detroit News claimed Kilpatrick was being treated “like a rock star.” Prison officials denied the allegations. About two weeks after Kilpatrick reported to prison, the Department of Corrections rec-ommended him for a boot camp program that would make him eligible for release on parole in 90 days. The sentencing court rejected the boot camp recommendation.
Well-connected Washington, D.C. lobbyist Jack Abramoff received a 70-month federal prison sentence in March 2006 after pleading guilty to conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion charges. His sentence was reduced to four years for cooperating in a federal investigation that resulted in other convictions and guilty pleas, including those of former U.S. Dept. of Justice deputy chief of staff Robert Coughlin (sentenced in November 2009 to one month in a halfway house, three years’ proba-tion and a $2,000 fine) and former Ohio congressman Bob Ney (who served 17 months of a 30-month prison sentence).
Abramoff was released from FPC Cumberland, a minimum-security facility, on June 9, 2010 after serving 43 months. He reported to a halfway house in Baltimore, Maryland where he was supposed to remain until he completed his sentence in December. Instead he was released to home confinement after spending only a few days at the halfway house. He is presently working at a pizzeria.
Another example of justice for the rich and famous is Noelle Bush, daughter of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who was sent to a court-ordered rehab program in February 2002 following her arrest on a felony charge of attempting to use a fake prescription to buy Xanax.
Noelle was ordered to spend 10 days in jail in Orange County, Florida for contempt of court after she was found with crack cocaine at the rehab center. However, she was not charged with possession of crack, a felony offense.
When millionaire business mogul Martha Stewart was sentenced in July 2004 to five months in federal prison plus two years’ supervised release following her conviction on charges of conspiracy, making false statements and obstruction, she served her time at FPC Alderson, a fenceless prison known as “Camp Cupcake.” After her release on March 4, 2005 she spent 5 months on house arrest at her $15 million estate in Bedford, New York. She described home confinement at her mansion as “hideous.”
In January 2008, Grammy-winning rapper Lil Wayne (Dwayne Carter) was charged with four felonies in Yuma, Ari-zona when marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy and a handgun were found in his tour bus. He was released on $10,185 bond 8 hours after his arrest and allowed to travel out of state. Lil Wayne pleaded guilty to the charges on June 22, 2010 – via video from Rikers Island Jail in New York, where he is serving one year on an unrelated gun charge – and is expected to receive probation as part of a plea agreement.
Singer Chris Brown turned himself in to Los Angeles police in February 2008 and was charged with felony assault and making criminal threats for hitting, choking and biting his girlfriend, R&B singer Rihanna. Brown pleaded guilty to the fel-ony assault charge on June 22, 2009. He was sentenced to five years’ probation, six months of community work and do-mestic violence counseling, and was allowed to serve the sentence in Virginia where he resides.
PLN previously reported preferential treatment given to rapper Foxy Brown (Inga Marchand) at Riker’s Island when she was serving a one-year sentence in 2007-2008 for violating probation in an assault case. Brown was allowed to par-ticipate in a magazine interview and photo shoot, and wore designer clothes while in jail. She served 8 months. Sepa-rately, a catered bar mitzvah ceremony was performed at the Manhattan Detention Complex for the son of prisoner Tu-via Stern, who was facing charges related to a $1.7 million financial scam. The event included sixty guests, a singer and a band, and visitors were allowed to keep and use their cell phones in violation of jail policies. [See: PLN, Feb. 2010, p.24].
And the list goes on.
Pay-to-Stay Jails for the Rest of Us
The flip side of pay-to-stay jails for wealthy prisoners is requiring poor defendants to pay daily fees for the privilege of being housed at regular lock-ups. In contrast to self-pay programs for the rich, such fees are imposed on impoverished prisoners who remain in jail because they can’t afford to make bond. In part driven by budget shortfalls, some jails are seeking to recover the costs of incarceration from all prisoners whether they can pay or not. [See: PLN, April 2008, p.1].
For example, jails in Douglas County, Oregon and Warren County, Kentucky charge prisoners $20 a day, while Springfield County and Klamath County in Oregon charge a $60 per diem jail fee. If prisoners can’t pay while incarcerated they receive a bill after they’re released, which can be turned over to a collections agency.
The Kane County jail in Illinois imposes a sliding scale of $20 to $100 a day depending on a prisoner’s income. At the aptly-named Purgatory Correctional Facility in Washington County, Utah, prisoners are charged $45 per day – though they get a 50% discount if they pay their bill in full when they are released.
“It’s really a drop in the bucket in comparison with the total cost of operating the jail,” said Springfield City Council President Dave Ralston. “But anything is better than nothing.”
“They’re publicity stunts,” countered PLN editor Paul Wright. “They recoup very little money in the real world, but it makes politicians look tough on crime and it gives the illusion to the public that they’re ‘doing something.’”
In perhaps the most extreme case to date, the Sheriff’s Department in Hillsborough County, Florida filed a lawsuit against former prisoner Aaron Brookins in May 2010 to recover $60,550 in costs and booking fees. He had served 1,200 days at the county jail.
In some cases it probably costs more to try to collect fees from ex-prisoners than the amount of money actually col-lected. There are also the questions of whether it is appropriate to impose large debts on just-released prisoners, many of whom were unemployed or indigent before they were jailed, and the impact that such financial pressures may have in terms of increased recidivism. Former offenders already have a hard time finding jobs and achieving post-release stability – does it make sense to saddle them with jail fees they can’t afford?
In May 2010, prisoners’ rights advocates in Massachusetts protested a legislative budget amendment that would al-low county jails to impose a $5 daily fee. “We object to [the amendment] because it has the possibility of increasing and perpetuating a resurgence of criminals and inmates, cultivating an institutionalized prison culture, legitimated by economic and budgetary policies, increasing crime and violence, and increasing poverty, economic and social disparity, immediately reflected in racial and ethnic demographics,” said Rev. George Walters-Sleyon, director of The Center for Church and Prison in Dorchester.
The $5-a-day jail fee proposal was approved by the House, but the Massachusetts Senate passed a different amend-ment in late May that allows the state’s 14 county jails to collect an unspecified amount from prisoners to defray expenses. The debt would be forgiven if they stay out of jail for two years after release.
While some prisoners may be able to pay per diem jail fees, they are the exception rather than the rule. After all, the entire concept is counterintuitive. Those who can afford to pay while sitting in jail could likely afford to make bond, and thus wouldn’t be incarcerated. Poor and indigent prisoners who can’t pay will simply rack up bills that become due follow-ing their release, which sets them up for financial failure.
Also, money deducted from prisoners’ jail accounts to pay the fees is usually deposited by friends and family mem-bers. Thus, they are the ones who are actually paying. “It’s the spouses, children and parents who pay the fees. They are the people who contribute to prisoners’ canteen accounts,” noted Sarah Geraghty, with the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR). The SCHR successfully opposed efforts in Georgia to charge jail prisoners $40 a day.
Having prisoners’ families – who are often themselves impoverished – pay for their loved ones’ imprisonment is poor public policy. Consider that it is not only parents with school-age children who have to pay the cost of public schools. That cost is paid through taxes imposed on everyone because public education, like our criminal justice system, is a public ser-vice. Thus, why should prisoners and their families be singled out for the cost of incarceration?
As Much Justice As You Can Afford
In summary, wealthy defendants, assuming they are arrested in the first place, can usually make bond while poor prisoners remain in jail. Celebrities and others with financial means have the option of booking themselves into pay-to-stay facilities, where they enjoy sundry amenities and are separated from the common riff-raff, or can even stay at home in some cases by hiring private security guards to watch over them.
When wealthy and famous offenders are convicted, their punishments tend to be on the more lenient end of the sen-tencing spectrum – such as probation, community service or short stints behind bars, even for serious crimes. For exam-ple, Mike Tyson’s 24-hour jail stay for felony drug possession and DUI, or Roger Avary’s one-year sentence for vehicular manslaughter that initially included work release.
The well-to-do and well-connected often receive preferential treatment while incarcerated, are usually housed at less-dangerous minimum-security facilities, and are frequently released from custody early – such as the 82 minutes that Nichole Richie spent in jail or the 84 minutes served by Lindsay Lohan.
Any doubt that celebrities get special treatment, or are sometimes able to pay their way out of prison, was dispelled by a 1984 incident involving Motley Crue singer Vince Neil. Neil was driving drunk when he lost control of his car and hit another vehicle head-on, killing his passenger, drummer Nicholas “Razzle” Dingley, and seriously injuring two people in the other car. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 30 days in jail, five years probation, community service and $2.5 million in restitution.
In a 2005 interview with Blender magazine, Neil said, “I wrote a $2.5 million check for vehicular manslaughter when Razzle died. I should have gone to prison. I definitely deserved to go to prison. But I did 30 days in jail and got laid and drank beer, because that’s the power of cash. That’s fucked up.”
At least he’s honest about it, except that he actually served only 20 days in jail, not 30. In January 2007 Neil was ar-rested for DUI in Las Vegas, but the charge was reduced to reckless driving. He was arrested again in Las Vegas on sus-picion of DUI on June 27, 2010, and released on $2,000 bond an hour after being charged.
Pay-to-stay jails, “bail sitting,” lenient sentences and early releases for wealthy and celebrity offenders pervert our criminal justice system by dispensing disparate treatment based on financial worth and social standing. Further, such privileges for the rich and famous help perpetuate the crowded, violent and sometimes deadly jails that poor prisoners must endure. If affluent prisoners had to serve time under similar abysmal conditions of confinement, perhaps improve-ments would be made.
“The bottom line is that we live in a plutocracy with special treatment for the rich, and we have Paris Hilton [and other celebrities] to thank for making the message clear – we get as much justice as we can afford,” PLN associate editor Alex Friedmann wrote in a June 2007 editorial.
Pay-to-stay programs do not significantly disadvantage the rich, but the per diem fees that regular jails are increas-ingly imposing on prisoners economically devastate the poor. Until this disparity is addressed, self-pay jails, stay-at-home bail monitoring and other perks available only to wealthy offenders will remain morally and ethically indefensible in a criminal justice system that prides itself on the motto inscribed on the front of the U.S. Supreme Court building: “Equal justice under law.”
But honestly, what can we expect from a wealth-driven justice system when, according to financial disclosure state-ments released in June 2010, at least five Supreme Court Justices are millionaires? Money and celebrity status talk, and our criminal justice system listens.
Sources: Michigan Law Review, National Public Radio, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Associated Press, www.marginalrevolution.com, Fox News, www.kval.com, Orange County Register, Tennessean, San Gabriel Valley Trib-une, Reuters, www.law.com, www.tmz.com, www.insidesocal.com, www.cnn.com, www.msnbc.com, BBC News, www.usmagazine.com, www.nydailynews.com, Palm Beach Post, http://badpress.wordpress.com, Phoenix New Times, USA Today, www.people.com, www.crxs.com, www.msnbc.msn.com, www.dailymail.co.uk, www.thesmokinggun.com, Orlando Sentinel, www.reasontofreedom.com, Detroit News, www.mlive.com, www.contactmusic.com, www.associatedcontent.com