By Winston Smith and John O. Sullivan
“Equal Justice Under Law”
-Inscription on the Facade of the U.S. Supreme Court
Yesterday, the LA Times ran a story that we felt we needed to say our piece on. In 2010, a woman named Carole Markin met a man named Alan Wurtzel on Match.com. After their second date, he raped her. In 2011 he pled no contest to sexual battery and was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment. But he didn’t do what anyone would call “hard time.” Alan Wurtzel was given an option: for a $100/day fee, he could avoid imprisonment in Los Angeles County Jail, and instead be held in the Seal Beach Police Detention Center. This difference might seem semantic, and you might wonder why someone would shell out $100 a night, enough to rent a decent hotel room, in order to stay in a different prison. So here’s some quick facts about Seal Beach vs LA County:
2015 per capita income: Seal Beach – $47k, LA County – $28k
% White population: Seal Beach – 83%, LA County – 50%
Seal Beach, which is in Orange County, is much wealthier, and much less violent than L.A. County, and it stands to reason that that Orange County’s inmates are similarly non violent. Not to mention the fact that Seal Beach city jail advertises its amenities, from flat screen TVs and a Computer/Media room, to clean beds and easy access to Work Release. This is what is known as a “pay-to-stay prison”, and it is where Alan Wurtzel spent 6 months for his crimes before being released early.
Wurtzel’s experience is referred to as “pay to stay” prison, and it is ridiculous. Prisons are not supposed to be the adult equivalent of a sleep-away camp. Pay to Stay prisons house their population, inmates who can afford a $100/night expense, in far better conditions than other prisons. Now let’s not get carried away, this is by no means an implication that prison should be fine. It’s prison. It’s a punishment. It is not designed to be fun, pleasing, or enjoyable. Those in prison owe a debt to society and are, at least in some part, paying that debt by staying in prison for however long their stay will be. But it is ridiculous that there are prisons that sell themselves as the luxury option. This is a clear acknowledgement that there are inferior and superior prisons and while it’s all fine and good (well, it isn’t but we can only fit in so much) for the outside world to understand that the justice system treats the wealthy differently than the poor it is another thing entirely to so blatantly entrench this, and Pay-to-Stay prisons spit in the face of the concept of equal rights.
The creation of luxury prisons does not solve the issues that the prison has, nor is it even some type of shoddy bandage. It is another blow. There should be no comments like the one made by Luicci Nader, who at 18 crashed his Ferrari on Christmas Eve killing his cousin, “I was lucky,” he said. “A less fortunate person in my shoes should have the same option.” There should not have been any other situation. The amount of wealth you, or in Nader’s case his family, have should have any bearing on the way in which your sentencing should play out. Its disgusting that you are able to pay your way into clearly lighter, less punishing punishments. Allowing people who have the mean to do so to pay their way into swankier conditions inherently defeats many of the purposes of prison. By allowing this system to exist, we allow the wealthy the shirk the punishment for their crimes. Yet again, this is yet another show of ways in which classism permeates the culture of the American justice system.
In addition to the blatant disregard to what jail is supposed to be, there is the concession by those who run prisons that many are deplorable. While jail is supposed to be a punishment, having uncontrolled violent offenders in an unregulated environment is not the reason jail is a punishment. With inmates dying of thirst, is our first instinct to think of those poor souls who are able to pony up over a million dollars to defend themselves for felony vehicular manslaughter? Absolutely not. These “pay to stay” prisons are a cry of a collapsing prison system that cannot handle the years of neglect that is has been left with.
To allow wealth to be so clear a determining factor in punishment for crimes is appalling. I’ve heard of legal dream teams, I’ve heard of affluenza, but to openly and willingly create a separate set of prisons available only to those who can afford $100/day for an extended period of time is an affront to everything we supposedly stand for as a nation. Thomas Jefferson wrote in The Declaration of Independence, the birth certificate of our country, that “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.” Much of the history of our nation has been defined by a struggle to ensure that promise. Pay-to-Stay prisons are not just an obstacle to the complete fulfillment of that promise, they are the antithesis of that promise.
The natural progression of this system is obvious, the wealthy will have jails which cater to their tastes while the rest of us will be stuck with a jail that is overcrowded, violent, and lacking in basic necessities. The rich will have easy access to quality, healthy, and clean food and water, while the rest are subject to food deserts and filthy water. The wealthy will live in American palaces, while the rest of us struggle to save for a home. The Wealthy will have access to the finest medical care in the world, while the rest of us struggle to afford expensive medical bills and basic treatment. The wealthy will populate the bodies of government and contribute ungodly sums of money in order to control those who write our laws. The wealthy will see their riches explode, while the rest of us stagnate. While some may believe that this is some type of hysterical, apocalypse-esque style reasoning, I would challenge them to realistically put forward an alternative. There is truly only one way that this plays out, and it is at the detriment of everyone except for a privileged few. We must continue to fight these clear entrenchments of classism within our criminal justice system and within our society as a whole if we are not to snicker as we tout ourselves as a model for law and order.
_________________________________________________________________Like this post? Want to see more? Follow us here on WordPress or like our Facebook Page to get the latest updates as well as our take on the news of the day.