Earlier today, I wrote about New York's cheapest hotel, where $10 buys a room that's a little smaller than a prison cell -- and not nearly as nice. A San Francisco-area city is now offering the opposite service: For a price, scofflaws can get a deluxe jail cell that, while not quite hotel-grade, is still miles better than the standard prison accommodations -- much less New York's Sun Bright hotel!
In 2002, Fremont built a $10.6 million, 58-bed detention center. While the facility don't quite qualify as five-star, is still a lot nicer than the local prisons, where gang affiliations and overcrowding can make a stay harrowing, to say the least.
The Fremont detention center is rarely filled to capacity -- a factor that led town officials to offer the space as a pay-to-stay prison. Under the new program, healthy, nonviolent offenders who don't have a gang affiliation and have not been convicted of a sex crime can stay in one of Fremont's cells for $155 per night, with a one-time $45 fee.
For the jail's new occupants, many of whom will likely come from rich enclaves in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, the benefits are obvious: The program enables them to avoid the general population in one of the area's overcrowded prisons. For Fremont, it's also a great deal: It costs the city only $8.35 per night to take care of its prisoners, which means that it realizes almost $147 a night of profit for every bed it fills.
Fremont is hardly the first California city to open a pay-to-stay prison: There are approximately 15 such programs in Southern California, with rates ranging from $85 to $255 per day. This is, however, the first in the Bay Area -- a region whose extremely wealthy citizenry would seem to make it especially fertile ground for such a program.
Other states have experimented with pay-to-stay prisons, but most don't offer California's two-tiered system. In Michigan and Ohio, pay-to-stay jails attempt to charge every inmate, often on a sliding scale that takes into account their earnings, dependents, and other financial data. In addition to creating a lot of paperwork, the programs aren't nearly as lucrative as one might expect: Ohio's Fairfield county, for example, was only able to recover about 12 percent of the charges that it levied on inmates.
It remains to be seen how profitable Fremont's plan will be, but -- given California's statewide prison problems and budget woes -- it looks like the small city just may have found a way to make crime pay.
Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.