Southern California

Pay-to-Stay Jail Programs Offer Upgraded Cells For a Price

Jail isn’t meant to be comfortable.

But in some SoCal cities, for the right price, they can be decidedly more so than for most of the general prison population, to the outrage of crime victims and their families.

On Aug. 22, 2010, Chiho Hayakawa’s daughter, Mai, was killed instantly in a deadly DUI crash. She was the passenger in a Toyota Celica that was unrecognizable after the collision.

"One of the policemen said, 'she’s not at the hospital, she’s gone,'" Hayakawa remembered. She also remembered her daughter telling her she loved her the last time the two saw each other.

The drunken driver of the car was Mai’s classmate, a man named Michael Keating.

Hayakawa said Keating never apologized to her family, and then, was given upgraded jail accommodations when his family shelled out tens of thousands of dollars.

"I was so shocked," she said.

In a so-called “pay-to-stay” program, a judge granted Keating permission to pay for an upgraded cell in Seal Beach after he said he feared for his life if he was sent to regular jail

Programs like the one Keating participated in are usually offered to low-offense inmates, mostly nonviolent DUI offenders.

"I feel his solution comes from money," Hayakawa said.

Seal Beach and several other Southern California cities — including Anaheim, Arcadia, Burbank, Glendale, Huntington Beach, Pasadena, Santa Ana and Torrance - allow inmates to avoid other overcrowded and potentially more dangerous jails by renting the upgraded cells for a daily fee.

In Pasadena, that fee is $143 per day, plus a one-time administrative fee of $64.

Some of the programs even let prisoners leave for work.

The Fullerton Police Department has just one pay-to-stay cell, where inmates can spend $127 a night to get their own TV, their own phone, and even their own full-size fridge.

And the cell isn’t exactly high security.

"The cell itself, it's rare that it’s closed. It's always open," said Cpl. Gabriela Soto

In Anaheim, inmates in the city’s pay-to-stay jail program can check out their own DVD players and work out in a nice gym.

All of the programs are pricey, with money going to the city.

In 2014, 268 participants used the pay-to-stay program in Glendale, and a total of $63,377 was collected.

"Bottom line — if you don't have the money, you're not going to be able to stay," said Det. Laura Lomeli.

But in the eyes of the law, these accommodations do not equal a lesser punishment.

"It's good people who made a mistake, made a bad choice — and they have to pay the consequences," Lomeli said.

Critics say those who need benefits like the ability to keep their job while serving their time are the ones who can least afford pay-to-stay programs.

"What a terrible idea. What a slap in the face for the concept of equal justice for all,” said Peter Eliasberg, legal director for the ACLU of Southern California. "If it’s a public service — that should be offered to everyone regardless of their ability to pay."

Michael Keating, who was intoxicated behind the wheel when Mai Hayakawa, was killed, served two years and paid a total of $72,000 to the jail to stay out of the general population.

He declined to speak with NBC4, but his father sent a written statement.

"Michael has taken responsibility for his actions, and continues to work toward building a life for himself. Besides being remorseful for Mai Hayakawa’s death he has to carry the label of 'convicted felon' which makes it all the more difficult,"" he wrote.

But for Mai’s mother, Keating’s punishment is just not enough.

"It’s so hard because my daughter's life and his two years - it's not fair," she said.

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