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When celebrities go to jail

By Todd Leopold, CNN
  • Charlie Sheen may do jail time after meeting with judge Monday
  • Colorado's Pitkin County Jail, where Sheen may serve, is comfortable as jails go
  • In Los Angeles County, celebs often given "keepaway" status for their safety
  • Celebs who have served time: Robert Mitchum, Robert Downey Jr., Paris Hilton

(CNN) -- As jails go, the one in Pitkin County, Colorado, seems pretty comfortable.

Inmates are allowed out of their cells from 8 a.m. until 11:30 p.m. There's a day room and a multipurpose room, a small gym, plenty of windows and "balanced, hot, varied, dietitian-approved inmate meals," according to the jail's detailed website.

If this is where Charlie Sheen ends up spending a chunk of his summer, he could do worse. He won't be able to smoke -- according to, he'll have to make do with nicotine patches -- but he won't be stuck in a small cell 23 hours a day. (Indeed, according to reports of a plea deal, he may be spending his daylight hours doing community service at a local theater.)

Sheen's sentence might include theater internship

The jail, in the Pitkin County seat of Aspen, has long had an enlightened outlook, according to statements on the website and Deputy Marie Munday, the information officer.

"The reason that we have such one-on-one treatment of people is because then they'll be better inmates, and then they'll be better people when they leave the jail," Munday says. "And it's important for us that they're mentally well and they're rehabilitating and ready to integrate into the society when they get out."

See images, video of the Pitkin County Jail

If Sheen does have to report to the pokey for a domestic violence charge, he'll be far from the first star to do so. Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Christian Slater -- to name just three -- have all done a little time (in Lohan's case, very little -- she was freed after serving 84 minutes in 2007), and such celebrities as Martha Stewart, Chuck Berry, Robert Downey Jr. and T.I. have all been to prison.

Indeed, the distinction between "prison" and "jail" is often lost when celebrity inmates are described.

Jail, observes Steve Whitmore of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, is a local entity originally designed for misdemeanors; the average stay in a Los Angeles County institution for its 1,800 sentenced inmates is 45 days. Prison, in contrast, is a state or federal establishment intended for people convicted of more serious crimes. (And there's also a difference between being taken to the local lockup to await sentencing and serving time there.)

So if celebrities seem to have it easy in jail, it's partly because the jail system is intended for nonviolent offenders -- and celebrities usually fall into that class, Whitmore says.

Celebrities generally also have access to money and good attorneys, but if there's a benefit to being a celebrity in the Los Angeles County system -- the nation's largest, with 20,000 total inmates -- it's the high profile they arrive with.

Famous suspects are often classified as "keepaways," which means they get cells by themselves and are segregated away from the general population. In the crowded Los Angeles County jails, this may seem like preferential treatment.

But it's for the suspect's safety, not comfort, Whitmore says.

"When people say they're treated special, the implication is that they're treated better," he says. "It's not true whatsoever. The difference is, because of the attention they draw, we have to take special security precautions to protect the inmates, the jailers, the deputy sheriffs as well as the individual. So it's always a balancing act for the jail as to what's best for that environment."

Celebrities have had wildly different experiences while in stir. Robert Mitchum, who served 60 days in prison for marijuana possession in 1949, famously described it as "Palm Springs without the riffraff." On the other hand, Robert Downey Jr. seemed genuinely affected by the year he served in the California prison in Corcoran. It kept him away from drugs, he told Rolling Stone recently, and also changed his political outlook, he told The New York Times in 2008.

"I wouldn't wish that experience on anyone else, but it was very, very, very educational for me and has informed my proclivities and politics every since," he said in an interview with David Carr.

Paris Hilton, who was sentenced for violating probation in connection with a series of driving arrests, told CNN's Larry King that her 3 ½-week stint in Los Angeles County's Century Regional Detention Facility in 2007 was "traumatic."

"Just the whole idea of being in jail is really scary. I wasn't -- I would hate to be alone, so that was really, you know, hard for me in the beginning, to be so alone. And I've had nightmares that my -- someone would break into my cell and hurt me. And just scary times like that."

She generally spent days alone in her cell, reading and answering letters, she said; food was bologna sandwiches and "jail slop."

A stay in Aspen for Sheen might be more comfortable -- likes to refer to the Pitkin County Jail as "cushy" -- but Munday resists the description.

"I think any place where they take away your freedom is not a good place to be," she said. "That's really the bottom line."