Would you pay $50 for the opportunity to spend a night in jail?
It sounds crazy, but 66 people shelled out the cash Friday for the chance to stay overnight at the Jefferson County Jail in HIllsboro, south of St. Louis.
The sheriff was basically looking for a unique way to raise money for mattresses and blankets for the real prisoners. So he turned the new wing at the jail into a one-time bed and breakfast.
Gary Hollern celebrated his 40th birthday Friday, blind-folded. At least initially. His family heard about the chance to stay overnight at the jail and thought it would be a fun way to surprise him.
"It's a special bed and breakfast that your family's prepared for you," a deputy said taking off Hollern's blindfold.
"Looking forward to spending a night in jail? Hmm, not so sure about that," Hollern said afterwards, laughing.
He's one of many who had never been to jail before but for a cool $50 bucks got the chance.
"I'm super excited," said Danielle Dukes, 26, after putting on her black-and-white striped uniform. "I can't wait. It's gonna be so much fun."
'Why not? I've never been to jail'
For 82-year-old Betty Notter, going to jail was on her "bucket list." She said it's something she wanted to do before she "kicked the bucket."
"Why not?," she said. "I've never been to jail."
After changing into the same prison stripes the inmates wear, it was time for our mug shots. "Most of the time people are paying to get out," said Sheriff Oliver "Glenn" Boyer, who runs the jail. "This is the first time I've ever heard of them paying to come."
Only a few concrete walls separated us from the hundreds of real inmates. Everywhere you go you're monitored by closed-circuit cameras and buzzed in through a series of heavy metal doors.
The walls are white and the windows are frosted so you can't see outside.
"This is as close as you can get without being actually booked in and placed in general population," said Boyer. "I mean, as you can see, you're in jail."
Aaron Kirkpatrick, 38, came from Columbia with his wife and sister-in-law.
"How many chances do you get to go to jail and not actually have to be there?," he said. "It's kinda stark. I've never been in a jail before so I didn't know what to expect. It's pretty stark."
You quickly notice a few things: There's not a lot of privacy. It's noisy. And there's not much to do.
The food? 'Awful'
Dinner consisted of two pieces of bread, warm coleslaw, some potatoes and fish sticks. While the food wasn't awful, it definitely wasn't very good.
"Awful, it had no flavor," said Jessica Nickel, who came with her mother. "The coleslaw was warm so we're probably all gonna get sick. It was just gross."
Unlike real prisoners, we got to eat pizza later - while playing trivia. I even got to play basketball in the jail courtyard. The basket had no net and even though we were outside, the area was enclosed with a roof and barbed wire.
"I'm glad I don't live here permanently," one of the tourist inmates said. "I'm glad the [cell] door slides."
The beds were cramped, small and hard - with no pillows. Those who didn't bring pillows, like me, had to roll up their wool blankets. "If you've never slept in a jail," the sheriff said during orientation. "Don't plan on sleeping much."
I slept maybe an hour at most while others stayed up all night. The beds were uncomfortable. And the guards don't turn off the lights, only dim them slightly, so they can constantly monitor prisoners.
The new $1 million wing opened for the real inmates Monday. In all, the jail raised about $6000 with the bed and breakfast.
While the sheriff's department tried to make it fun, it was still very uncomfortable.
I left thinking that if everyone spent a night in jail, maybe less people would end up there.