MAKING LEMONADE: I was seriously minding my own business last Sunday afternoon when a perfect stranger invaded my space and took me to task for my perceived lack of compassion. I was at the public library waiting for my daughter, when a fellow patron-unbidden by me-sought to engage me in a tte- -tte on the subject of Paris Hilton. As conversational gambits go, this qualifies as a certified dry hole. For the better part of three years, I have worked hard not to think about Paris Hilton at all. It’s been tough because Rupert Murdoch, David Rockefeller, the Trilateral Commission, and whoever else controls the American media have decided that for some reason we need to be kept abreast of Hilton’s every move. I have yet to understand the fascination. As far as I can determine, Hilton’s another skinny skank with nothing to show, but who insists on displaying what she hasn’t got nonetheless. She’s not funny, clever, original, or even kind to animals. And unlike Liz Taylor or Michael Jackson, Paris isn’t famous for having been accomplished at anything in an earlier incarnation. Trump, at least, has his hair.
When I expressed a keen lack of interest in Ms. Hilton’s incarceration at the Los Angeles County Jail-or the psychic discomfort she endured during her three days of captivity-I was verbally chastised. Didn’t I understand that she was mentally ill? Who was I? he asked. Some kind of white male, Catholic Protestant, making X amount of dollars per year, with two-and-a-half-to-four years of a college education under my self-satisfied belt? If the guy could size me up so fast, I definitely didn’t want to argue with him. So instead, I told him he was right about everything and left to find my daughter.
But Paris Hilton came to mind later this week while watching the county supervisors go through their opening routines during this year’s annual budget dance. As always, the elephant under the throw rug was overcrowding at the county jail, and the need to build a new jail somewhere up in North County because that’s where most of the criminals come from anyway. I think this has been a pressing concern for the county for about 25 years now. In that time, the problem has only gotten more expensive.
As I was perusing my dog-eared copy of the 1995 Grand Jury’s report on the problem, I was reminded that back then it would have cost $75 million to build the new facility. Today, the price tag is twice that much. And if the Chinese keep building new cities and new dams at their current pace, cement and rebar will soon be worth their weight in cocaine, and the price will triple. Naturally, we don’t care because the people in the county jail are all criminals, and criminals get what they deserve. Who cares that many of the inmates are severely mentally ill? Or addicts? Or both? Is jail really the place for these people? And has Paris Hilton really become their poster child? If so, can they sue?
Of course, there’s the more cynical school of thought that suggests Hilton was released early not because of any mental illness, but because her granddaddy donated $1,000 to the re-election campaign of Los Angeles Sheriff Lee Baca. For the record, Baca assures us there’s no connection between the donation and Hilton’s early release for unspecified health problems.
I watched as S.B. County’s new Sheriff, Bill Brown, engaged in all the same theatrical handwringing his predecessors have where the jail’s concerned, but with a few new wrinkles thrown in. Maybe the state will help bankroll a large chunk of the new construction costs if we set aside 500 of the 800 new beds for returning inmates to engage in re-entry re-tooling in hopes of reducing the 70 percent recidivism rate. Even if this too-good-to-be-true scenario comes to pass, there’s the $20 million a year in new operating costs to cover salaries and benefits. Already there’s talk about putting a quarter-cent or half-cent sales tax increase on a countywide ballot to cover that nut, but Santa Barbara voters have shown themselves to be less than generous where jail bonds are concerned. And such an initiative would invariably compete with plans to get Measure D-the half-cent sales tax surcharge that pays for road repairs-renewed for another 20 years. Or the campaign to increase parcel taxes to help the public schools.
Which leads me back to Paris Hilton. Isn’t it time Bill Brown stopped whining about recidivists and started making money? Why not build a brand-new, state-of-the art facility, but make it a glamour slammer, a Klinique du Klink? Market it as a destination for the rich and spoiled who find themselves forced to pay their debt to society. Offer some extra amenities-Botox, liposuction, facials, personal trainers, wireless Internet, fluffy robes, expensive cigars, smoking rooms, fashion shows, tequila parties-and charge through the nose. Look at all the celebrities doing time. If given a choice between Santa Barbara and L.A.’s twin-tower hell-hole, don’t you think they’d pay for the privilege? If Brown played his cards right, no doubt he could get the Bacara to discreetly market this program with all their guests. The possibilities for ad campaigns are endless: “What happens in county jail stays in county jail.” The problem has been that law enforcement always picks on the poor people, as if they’re the only ones breaking the laws. Guess what? Poor people can’t pay. The real benefit of this approach-should Brown be enlightened enough to pursue it-is that the revenues generated might be sufficient to hire a few extra shrinks and maybe a detox counselor or two for the mainstream jail population. Who knows? Maybe that would help reduce the recidivism rate. But in the meantime, I’ll be staying the heck out of the public library. It’s a scary place.