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I Paid for a Fancy Jail. The Alternative Was Terrifying.

One ex-inmate’s view of a comfy 6-month stay.

This article was published in collaboration with Vice.

On Christmas Eve 2009, Luicci Nader, an 18-year-old from a wealthy family in Newport Beach, Calif., crashed his Ferrari, killing a cousin who was riding with him and seriously injuring two passengers in a tow truck. Prosecutors alleged that he was speeding, and in 2012, he pleaded guilty to felony vehicular manslaughter. He was sentenced to a year in jail, of which he served six months.

Rather than placing him in the notoriously violent Orange County Jail, the court agreed to allow Nader to serve his time in one of Southern California’s “pay-to-stay” city jails, where — for a price — defendants can upgrade their jail experience. Nader’s family paid more than $18,000 for him to do his time in a jail in the nearby city of Seal Beach.

I did my sentence in pay-to-stay because, first of all, my parents had the money. I come from a wealthy family, and we figured this would be easier on them—and on me, of course.

Also, I’m Lebanese, and in California, county jails are often divided up between whites, blacks and Hispanics. I was born and raised in Newport Beach—but what race would they see me as? I wanted to avoid that whole fiasco—all the fights, all the gangs. You get yourself in trouble in there.

The first night, I walked into the jail, and, obviously, didn’t know anybody. All my life I’ve been around people that I wanted to be around. Everyone was looking at me, and someone said, “You look like a rich dude.” “I’m not,” I replied. I didn’t want to tell anyone my story.

The jail is tiny. Sure, it’s not county jail, but it’s not exactly fun. You don’t have contact with a lot of people, and on a typical day, it’s like living in a small maze.

I’d wake up in the morning, make my bed, and go into the kitchen to make breakfast. I was taking care of everything; laundry, linens, cleaning, the work orders, and I was also the cook. I took care of all the tasks because most of the other inmates left everyday for work furlough. So I wanted to keep busy, or else it would have been hell, because I would have just been sitting there.

During my downtime, I would pray, read novels or play cards. I would pray to my cousin. It was horrible. We were together since little kids—we did everything together. Sometimes I would just go work out when I thought about that.

There was a small yard, and we used to play basketball sometimes. There was also a TV room and a DVD library, and we would watch “Friends,” “Prison Break,” other shows. I would talk on the phone with my parents everyday. We never had conflict over access to the phone because there weren’t that many people. My dad paid over $6,000 for phone calls over the period I was there.

The officers seemed to respect me and even trust me. They were like, “Oh, you shouldn’t be in here. We read your file. The system sucks sometimes.” That meant a lot to me.

I was a sort of shot-caller in there, because I did the laundry and cooked the meals. A lot of people come in for drunk driving and other minor offenses. But there were also a lot of people that had done severe crimes, and they were all treated so easily. There was a guy in my cell who wouldn’t say why he was there. When we looked him up, we learned he was a child molester and child pornographer, and they were letting him out on work furlough. I gave him meatloaf and expired milk for every single meal.

The officers one time were like, “Nader! How come you’re mistreating him?” And I responded, “Officer, we both know this guy is a child molester.” And she was like, “You shouldn’t disrespect him, keep it on the down low, don’t go too hard on him.” I said, “If this was county jail, this guy would be dead by now.”

The jail was made up of dorms, with three or four beds in most of them. In the morning, the work furlough people would get ready to go to their jobs. They would put on regular clothes and put their orange jail uniforms in their lockers for the day. There was no real privacy.

I learned how to control my temper in there. Now I deal with people a lot better, because life doesn’t go your way all the time. I wouldn’t have benefitted one percent if I had gone to county jail, where all people seem to think about is survival.

Still, if I had to do it again, I wouldn’t go to Seal Beach’s jail—I hear there are other pay-to-stay jails that are more lenient.