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A&E Reality Show Puts Undercover Volunteers, Hidden Cameras in Jails

by Dale Chappell

A group of people who had neither been arrested nor convicted of a crime nevertheless spent two months in county jails – as part of a reality show with hidden cameras, in order to expose the harsh experience of life behind bars.

The revealing program, called “60 Days In,” was created by TV channel A&E to show its viewers what things are like for prisoners held in local lock-ups, by following volunteers jailed on fictitious charges. None of the guards or other prisoners knew the volunteers were undercover – only a small group of jail officials, who agreed to the filming but had no control over what was revealed in the show.

To explain the presence of a roving video crew, jail officials told prisoners and guards that a documentary was being filmed. Other cameras were hidden at the facility. The footage caught guards conducting shakedowns and harassing prisoners, as well as the brutal living conditions at the jails.

“Stay in your own lane,” advised one volunteer on how to stay safe.

“I am at this jail’s mercy, that they can essentially do with me whatever they please,” said another. “It was quite intimidating.”

“Even just 60 days affected them psychologically,” noted Jennifer Ortiz, an assistant professor of criminology at Indiana University, speaking of the undercover volunteers.

“They felt hopeless,” agreed Col. Mark Adger, the chief jailer at Georgia’s Fulton County Jail. “It can be very difficult, especially depending on the strength of your own psyche, to withstand such pressures.”

The Fulton County Jail has been described as one of the country’s most dangerous. It was the setting for a two-month video shoot in 2017 for the show’s third and fourth seasons, which was cut short by two weeks when an undercover volunteer, Angele, deliberately blew her cover to Gabrielle, a prisoner with whom she had developed a romantic relationship.

The final episode followed Col. Adger as he raced to extract the reality show’s participants before word got out about their true identities.

Seasons one and two of “60 Days In” were shot over a two-month period in 2015 at the Clark County Jail in Jeffersonville, Indiana. [See: PLN, Nov. 2016, p.63]. Sheriff Jamey Noel said the filming at his jail, where seven “innocent volunteers” went undercover, was a “learning experience.”

In response to inappropriate behavior revealed on the show, five Clark County jailers were fired and seven others resigned.

Besides adding more guards and increasing medical staff, the jail has further responded by expanding its GED and alcohol and drug treatment programs. The facility also changed its mental health provider when it discovered prisoners were being released without follow-up care.

The undercover volunteers found that their arrival at the jail was met with skepticism – from other prisoners, who challenged details of their criminal backstories, and also from staff members, who treated their requests as if they were attempts to take advantage of them or distract them from their duties.

Col. Adger said prisoners often ask guards for “small favors, like finding out when their court date is,” after which the guards “find out they’re being played.”

“Their relationship with inmates, it can be a pretty touchy one,” he added. “I think the main issue is the staff is always on alert of being scammed by an inmate or being played or manipulated by an inmate, regardless of the actual inmate’s situation.”

One of the undercover prisoners named Emmanuel, who was actually a public health analyst from New Jersey, said he ended up shouting at guards because they refused to respond to him otherwise.

“It’s a common pattern with the [guards] that it takes challenging, just being belligerent, in order for them to give you respect,” he explained. “It’s sad. They’ll respond to you cursing at them, you yelling at them, and honestly, that doesn’t help the inmates that are in here when they go out, because they know they can just get something by just yelling.”

Meanwhile, female prisoners in the women’s section of the jail complained for more than an hour before guards addressed a gas leak.

“I really just genuinely think the officers were tired of smelling [the gas], tired of hearing us complain, so they had to do something,” said Jaclyn, one of the volunteers who worked as a paralegal in Indiana.

Upon their arrival at the jail, the undercover prisoners were introduced to a new social pecking order, usually headed by a gang member, who controlled day-to-day activities in their unit while keeping other prisoners in line through violence or intimidation.

“If you take that beating, you’re more respected,’ said Ryan, one of the volunteers.

Col. Adger estimated that 20 percent of the prisoners in his jail have gang affiliations. No other prisoners attempted to intervene in the fights or report them to guards.

“You can get murdered in here for something like that,” noted Alan, an undercover prisoner who was a police officer from Texas.

Another volunteer named Jeff succumbed to pressure to buy commissary items for a fellow prisoner, and word quickly spread that he could be taken advantage of. Food plays a significant role behind bars because it doubles as currency, since money is not allowed. Alan also said he was targeted by prisoners who noticed his commissary habits.

“Outside, it’s a honey bun, but in here, it’s like carrying around a brick of gold,” he stated.

But because prisoners are so jealous of their food, a volunteer named Zac knew he had been accepted when he was invited to a group dinner featuring shared commissary items. Other prisoners threw parties at the jail with homemade alcohol and a blend of sugar, coffee and prescription narcotics called “whippit.”

Through Alan’s experience, viewers also discovered how meth and other illegal drugs entered the facility – smuggled by accomplices on the outside who get arrested on purpose.

“These guys were coming in with things in their body cavities that we just weren’t checking,” Col. Adger said, noting that the revelation led to changes in procedures at his jail in order to intercept the incoming contraband.

After participating in the A&E show, Alan left his job as a police officer to become a car salesman.

“I couldn’t go to bed at night knowing that if I stopped somebody with a little dime bag of weed, I were to arrest them and put them in a place like that – I wouldn’t be able to live with myself,” he explained.

Sheriff Noel, who was forced to fire guards after filming the “60 Days In” show, took a broader view.

“I’ve said all along that I had to take the good with the bad,” he stated. “Hopefully, it’s a deterrent, too, that people understand what happens when you go to jail.”

Facilities that participate in the reality show benefit financially, keeping a $200,000 video surveillance system installed by A&E, along with a payment of $500 per day of filming. They are also reimbursed for expenses.

Other volunteers who went undercover at the jails included a teacher, a former Marine, a writer, an attorney for California’s prison system, a criminology student and family members of people who have been incarcerated, as well as Maryum May May Ali, the daughter of famed boxer Muhammad Ali (who was sentenced to five years in prison for draft evasion, though his conviction was later overturned).

The fourth season of “60 Days In” aired between January 1 and March 26, 2018. 



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