Shame on A&E: ’60 Days In’ Creates Stigma for Inmates and Families
Jail is a scary place. I know, I’ve been there (luckily only 5 days, but it was hell because of my charges!) The general public often does not know the differences between jail and prison. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, jails are locally-operated, short term facilities that hold inmates awaiting trial or sentencing or both, and inmates sentenced to a term of less than 1 year, typically misdemeanors. Prisons are long term facilities run by the state or the federal government and typically hold felons and inmates with sentences of more than 1 year. This means that in local jails, there’s a HUGE mixture of inmates with a wide variety of low and high level offenses all together in the same pod! For example, to the left of you is an inmate with twenty-five unpaid parking tickets; to the right is an inmate with armed-robbery charges. I think of Tom Hanks famous line in the film, Forest Gump, “Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” This may be a corny example but it works in this case. I’m mentioning this because TV reality shows love drama and jail is full of it.
I’m not a fan of jail and prison TV shows because I’ve experienced being behind bars. The list of jails shows are growing: Jail (Spike TV), Lockup on MSNBC, and now 60 Days In. This new reality show that airs on A&E, now in it’s second season follows seven individuals as they volunteer to go undercover, spending 60 days as inmates in the Clark County Jail (also known as the Michael L. Becher Adult Correctional Complex in Jeffersonville, Indiana.) Their goal is to obtain evidence of questionable or illegal activities within the jail that might be missed by the Correctional Officers and surveillance systems. The first season was met with mixed reviews:
“Yet even acknowledging that “60 Days In” (the title referring to the planned length of their stays) works on a visceral level, that doesn’t eliminate the queasy feeling associated with turning prison into a reality-TV backdrop, with all the baggage that entails. Unlike “Scared Straight!,” the groundbreaking documentary that brought with it a specific educational mission, the thumb on the scales here is tilted much more heavily on entertaining than informing.” Brian Lowry, Chief TV Critic
According to Clark County Sheriff Jamey Noel, intelligence gained through the program “helped us identify critical issues within our system that undercover officers would not have been able to find,” a statement that warrants considerable skepticism. Because while authorities might have benefited from this exercise, there’s a belief that in terms of specific time frames, like most reality TV, “60 Days In” had more to do more with 15 minutes of fame than improving one of the most violent jails in the country.
POSITIVE CHANGES AND MANIPULATIVE EDITING?
Are things changing for the better at Clark County Jail? This last May, five correctional officers were fired at the jail. Noel said, “It’s one thing if you made an honest mistake. We’ll fix it and we’ll learn from that mistake, but we, unfortunately, had a few incidents where it was blatant neglect of duty or it was criminal behavior that we weren’t going to tolerate.” What I’m surprised about is that since 80% of inmates in the Clark County jail are there on drug-related charges, where is the narcotics anonymous class for inmates? Again, accorded to Noel, a narcotics class has been added which is a positive sign that the TV reality show is bringing to light what needs improving. During the first season, Zachary Baker was actually able to relay information to the sheriff that potentially saved a life. With details on shanks being hidden in the pod, Sheriff Noel ordered a CERT raid and found a potentially lethal weapon. Zac also let them know about other hiding places, communications that were being made with the outside and insufficiencies with the officers themselves. It was definitely a wealth of information, and it seems likely that it was because he remained focused on why he was there instead of involving himself in pod drama. On the other side of things, I believe ’60 Days In’ is creating more stigma for inmates and their families because of this very drama described. All you have to do is watch the show for three minutes and you’ll see inmates acting like animals, screaming at other inmates and guards, or just acting sub-human. Sure, I understand the inmates are pissed off at the system and are locked up in one of the worst jails in our country, but because of how A&E’s editors and producers are piecing the shows’ scenes together, we see the worst of the worst. Very rarely do producers add in a positive scene featuring an real inmate since they know that the highest ratings come from dramatic, tense and wild moments. Manipulative editing isn’t a new concept; many reality shows are guilty of this. In 2012, BuzzFeed interviewed a reality TV show editor who admits that manipulation is common and that ‘teasable moments’ are what producers are looking for:
“I’ve worked as an editor of reality TV shows for about eight years — I’ve worked for 30 to 35 different reality series, and probably edited 300 to 400 individual episodes. Most people understand by this point that reality shows are entertainment, but there’s a trust element there — when it’s called reality, viewers want to believe. As editors we walk the line, though, and in some shows we kind of jump over it. He adds, “Sometimes I feel guilty about manipulating the footage, but I maybe feel more guilty about the dumbing-down of reality TV. We put out quality emotional, dramatic products, but as soon as they go to the network, they’ll decide “our audience doesn’t have that attention span” or “people in Middle America won’t like it.” They’re basically saying, “our audience is too dumb for that.” I feel guilty about dumbing down the product for this imaginary viewer that I don’t believe exists, or if it does, I think we have a responsibility to educate viewers and give them something smarter.”
I have to be honest…the show caught my attention because of the drama, cast members and of course the real inmates. As a filmmaker, editor and former news reporter I know how the magic of editing can alter true reality. Manipulative editing creates a relationship between two unrelated events, or removes a connection that should have been there. In addition, editors, producers and directors can sometimes cherry-pick scenes. They may show only certain parts of a relationship can easily create an illusion that has little to do with the reality. Imagine if your entire relationship with your best friend was to be summed up in ten minutes. Now imagine that the summation consisted of your combined worst ten minutes — your loudest arguments, your worst fights, your angriest moments ever. If someone who didn’t know you or your friend saw only the summation, he might well conclude that you had once been friends, but were now mortal enemies. How about deleting important scenes? It’s called, ‘causal deletion.’ It’s true that, sometimes, people do things for no reason. Most of the time, though, they have very good reasons — but if the reasons get left on the cutting-room floor, it looks like they don’t. This can make even the most justified anger seem petty and immature. I’m unsure if A&E’s production staff is guilty of this, but it’s very well possible that manipulative editing may come into play during post-production.
WHAT DO YOU THINK OF INMATES?
When you hear the word inmate or prisoner, what do you think? Words such as monsters, crazy, sex offenders, druggies or maybe ‘sub-human’ may come to mind. We are trained in society to believe this way because of TV shows, news, rumors or just plain ignorance. I understand that some inmates are dangerous and need to be incarcerated, but when the media continually covers crime stories, the sex offender panic, who’s getting arrested or has been charged, or just plain negativity, we become somewhat brainwashed. If this is too strong of a word for you, try collective consciousness: a set of shared beliefs, ideas and moral attitudes which operate as a unifying force within society. I would even go as far as saying that because of shows like ’60 Days In’, former inmates and their families are seeing increased prejudice, rejection and harassment in our communities and are increasingly having a hard time finding housing, employment and acceptance. Another show that comes to mind that creates fear and panic is Dateline’s, ‘To Catch a Predator‘, a show that impersonated underage people and detaining male adults who contacted them over the Internet for sexual liaisons. People were lured to meet with a decoy under the pretense of sexual contact and then confronted. I’m not condoning what these people may or may not be guilty of, rather how the show and the drama surrounding it causes most people to think there’s a million sexual predators running loose in our neighborhoods ready to snag up our children. (see my Moral Panic blog post) The original TV show hosted by Chris Hansen was cancelled in 2008 but efforts to create a new spin off series titled, ‘Hansen vs. Predator‘ are underway. It’s just another show that is creating social panic in our world and will most likely contain manipulative editing.
“The show repeatedly uses the exact same footage of violence to reinforce the terror, and while I have no doubt that’s real and certainly the reality of prison life, repeating the same moments over and over again is manipulative at best,” writes Reality Blurred reporter, Andy Dehnart. He adds, “Also: It may be legal, but how ethical is it to turn other inmates into reality show characters without their consent? What they think of as surveillance cameras are instead Big Brother-ish cameras, recording their every move and turning it into entertainment.”
If positive outcomes are possible from the show ’60 Days In’, I believe it will come from the reality show cast members such as Monalisa who I had met at the InterNational Prisoners Family Conference in Dallas, Texas. Monalisa, who has an incarcerated daughter mentions to the cameras on Season Two/Episode One that she has no respect for the system nor the correctional officers. The show gives her and the other cast members a chance to see how our system in America treats inmates. This may bring more compassion to America’s failed prison system.
In the meantime, I say shame on A&E and other networks for producing shows that increase group-think, prejudice, hate for certain social groups and fear in our society. WE DON’T WANT IT ANYMORE!
– Matt Duhamel, Filmmaker/Social Activist