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Exploiting Prisoners on Prime Time

by Ed Lyon

It is, or should be, fairly common knowledge that most prisoners are disadvantaged, impoverished, often have substance abuse addictions or mental health issues, and have made poor life choices.

It would seem that this population has enough problems and thus should not be exploited. Alas, that has not been the case in Sacramento County, California, where Netflix produced its reality TV series Jailbirds, which was filmed in 2018 and began airing in May 2019. Adam Banner wrote a comprehensive critique of the show for the American Bar Association’s journal.

As with the national prison and jail population, 90 percent of Sacramento County’s main jail is composed of male prisoners. Despite this, the six-episode Netflix series focuses on the jail’s female population. Banner believes the show is trying to chase the success of Orange is the New Black, wooing the same viewers and seeking similar ratings.

He noted that the female prisoners in Jailbirds rarely discuss men in the episodes he viewed, with most of the relationships being between women, romantic as well as platonic. The prisoners themselves explain their relationships are one of the few things that help them maintain their sanity while incarcerated.

Administrative segregation was explored in one episode. In another, a female prisoner begs for release from ad seg, citing her fellow prisoners’ constant yelling and screaming. A prime opportunity to expose the inherent inhumanity of solitary confinement for the average viewer was completely glossed over by the producers.

Comparing Jailbirds to Netflix’s prior jail series, First and Last, Banner pointed out a few educational and informational aspects of the show; for example, how toilets are used as a makeshift means of cell-to-cell communication, and explanations of jail-specific jargon. One of the prisoners even demonstrated how to make “pruno.”

Prior to filming each episode of Jailbirds, the prisoners said they were told they would not be punished for any rule infractions committed while on camera. That did not turn out to be the case, as several of the women were disciplined with some receiving extended sentences as a result.

It was unclear if any of the “stars” of Jailbirds received compensation for appearing in the series. However, the Sacramento Bee reported in July 2019 that $42,211 was billed to the show’s producers to cover 482 hours of overtime for guards and supervising sergeants.

No money was supposed to change hands, according to jail Sergeant Tess Deterding. But billing invoices indicated deputy jailers made $83 per overtime hour and sergeants made $96 per overtime hour while providing security for the film crew.

Thus, Netflix benefited by producing and airing the series, and jail staff benefited from overtime pay, while the prisoners who appeared on Jailbirds were simply exploited.

Further, according to the Sacramento Bee article, during the filming of the show, “Sacramento County sheriff’s deputies watched fights break out, allowed inmates to incriminate themselves without their attorneys present and demanded editorial control of the reality series, even as the show’s producers amped up the drama in the name of entertainment.”

One prisoner, for example, said a fight scene was “damn near staged.”

“We have a sheriff’s department that appears to be more interested in helping to create dramatic circumstances or to stand back and watch ... potentially unsafe circumstances unfold,” stated Kristie Bunton, dean of the Bob Schieffer College of Communication at Texas Christian University. “That just seems to me to be an abrogation of their responsibility. They have a sworn duty to protect all those inmates, not to use them for the purposes of somebody’s entertainment.”

“To think that we have deputies, our jailers, in a correctional system that are going out of their way to spend even more time and energy to accommodate the needs of shock value TV ... when we have so many other priorities is demoralizing,” added Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna.

Attorneys representing some of the prisoners profiled on Jailbirds said they were unaware that their clients were being filmed while discussing their cases, sometimes making incriminating statements.

Nor have some of the women who appeared on the Netflix series fared well following their release. One, Megan “Monster” Hawkins, 29, was arrested on May 17, 2019 after allegedly trying to open a bank account using false identification. Someone at the bank recognized her from the show and contacted the police. 

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Sources: abajournal.com, sacbee.com, abc10.com