Where was Stephen Petrick? That was the question among his friends in mid-November after the 67-year-old retiree suddenly disappeared.
At the time, no one knew that he had been trying to help a pregnant woman kick a nasty heroin habit by locking her inside his Santa Monica home so she couldn't buy drugs, or that she had tried to flee and things turned ugly fast, ending with the cops arresting Petrick on a charge of false imprisonment.
Not one of Petrick's friends had an inkling that Petrick was stuck inside the Los Angeles County jail system — for five long nights — unable to contact them or a bondsman because of the phone setup inmates are forced to use.
“You supposedly have the right to bail,” Petrick says, “but it was effectively denied by the way the phone system works. It should be criminal.”
Petrick says he was arrested in Santa Monica, where he was fingerprinted and booked at the city jail. When he asked to make a phone call, officers told him he had to wait until he was transferred to the L.A. County jail later that day.
At the county jail, Petrick says, he told the deputies that he had high blood pressure and diabetes, so he was placed in a medical unit. He describes it as a large room with 20 to 30 inmates, a few narrow, stainless-steel benches and two or three telephones.
Immediately, Petrick says, he walked up to one of the old-fashioned-looking pay phones, a big black box with patches of chrome but absent a coin slot. Petrick lifted the receiver and placed it to his ear, listening to the automated voice tell him he'd be making a collect call and that it may be recorded or monitored.
Petrick reached out to dial a number. He paused.
Like many people, Petrick had come to rely on his cellphone. He wasn't as good as he used to be about memorizing phone numbers. Excitedly, he recalled one person's cell number and dialed it.
His elation, however, quickly turned to anxious frustration as the automated voice told Petrick that he could not place a collect call to a cellular phone. He could only call out to a land line. Trouble was, he hadn't memorized any land-line numbers.
Hell, he hardly even knew anyone with a land line anymore.
“I realized right away that I had a problem,” Petrick says.
Next, Petrick says, he looked around for a phone book or a posted list of bond agencies so he could arrange to pay bail. The bond was $150,000, an amount Petrick says he had no problem paying. But he needed to call someone on the outside to help.
Unfortunately, he says, he could not find a list of phone numbers for bail bondsmen. When he asked a deputy for help, Petrick says, the deputy was resolutely unhelpful, telling him, “That's your problem. If we gave you the number, that would be showing partiality.”
After spending a few sleepless nights in the large room filled with other inmates, Petrick says, he was moved to a more permanent cell with access to a common room containing phones. Doubting they would be any different, Petrick tried once again to place a call. But the results were the same. No collect calls to cellphones. No phone list of bail bonds agencies.
Petrick says he was not able to arrange bail until after he had his first court appearance — four days after his arrest.
“There was no way in hell for me to call anyone or to get a bondsman's number,” he says. “The phones in there effectively denied me the right to make bail, and I don't know if many people know about this.”
Jeff Stanley, owner of Bad Boys Bail Bonds, one of the largest bond companies in California, with offices from San Jose to San Diego, says the phone situation at L.A. County jail is one of the worst in the state.
“The individuals in custody are held hostage to this phone system that they have to use to talk to an attorney or a bondsman — something they have the legal right to do,” Stanley says. “I truly believe that it's a violation of their civil rights, because everyone has a right to bail, and this is interfering with that right.”
Says Esther Lim, the jails monitor for the American Civil Liberties Union and one of the few people actually allowed inside the notoriously restricted facility, “I didn't see a listing of bail-bonds companies near any of the phones I've looked at. I have seen listings by the phones for your ambassador if you're not a U.S. national, but nothing for bail bonds. It's ridiculous.”
Nicole Nishida, spokeswoman for the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, confirms there are no phone numbers provided for bail bondsmen near phones to which inmates have access.
“And we have no plans of doing it in the future,” she says.
Nishida calls the problem a “vending issue” that would have to be resolved by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors. She says it boils down to fairness: making sure the Sheriff's Department does not display favoritism toward any particular bail bonds businesses.
Officials in other counties, however, say they're having no such problem and have found easy ways to provide phone numbers to everybody in jail.
An Orange County jail spokeswoman, for example, says that a list of bond companies, with phone numbers, is posted in both the booking area and in the common rooms used by inmates. She says the bond agencies must contact a company that contracts with the county, and they pay to get on the list that goes inside the jail.
In San Diego County, the Sheriff's Department used to provide inmates with the Yellow Pages but recently replaced the bulky phone book with an alphabetical listing of bail bonds companies provided to the jail by a local association of bail agencies.
“L.A. County does not post a list,” says bondsman Stanley, “and I have no idea why. L.A. County marches to its own beat.”
In addition, it strikes people such as Stanley, Lim and Petrick as strange that, in this technologically advanced and cellphone-reliant age, there is no easy way to make a collect call to a cellphone, particularly as the number of people without a land line increases. According to a 2010 Centers for Disease Control report, 25 percent of U.S. households don't even have a land line.
Stanley's is one of them.
“Many families like myself don't have a land line,” he says, “and I think it's about time they moved into the 21st century.”
Dorothy Cukier of Global Tel Link, a company that specializes in prison phones and operates the system in L.A. County, told the Weekly via email that collect calls in general — whether they originate from a jail or not — are limited to land lines. The company is allowed to jump in when inmates call a cellphone, offering the recipient of the call a chance to sign up for a service, AdvancePay, which lets calls to cellphones go through, by using a credit card. Another option, Cukier says, is for inmates to put money into an inmate debit account, out of which they can pay to call a phone that does not ordinarily accept collect calls.
Petrick says he was never offered an inmate debit account and has no idea whether a Global Tel Link agent jumped in to ask the friend Petrick had called if he'd accept the charge. All Petrick knows is that he couldn't get through to his friend.
Two months after Petrick finally arranged bail and got out of jail, he settled his criminal case, which prosecutors apparently agreed wasn't as serious as the initial charges implied. He pled guilty to misdemeanor false imprisonment. He received three years of probation and, ironically, credit for time served for his five nights missing in the jail system.
As for the future, Petrick says, “The first thing I'm going to do is carry a bail bondsman's number with me at all times and memorize it in case there's some fluke and I get in trouble again. I don't want to ever get stuck in jail like that again. It was a nightmare.”