60 Days In, the documentary series that tracks law-abiding citizens as they spend two months in a real prison, is back with Season two on American network A&E. Starting off with a two-hour premiere on August 18, the second season promises to be as exciting and tense as the first, which was broadcast earlier this year.
Sheriff Jamey Noel, who runs the Clark County Jail in Jeffersonville, Indiana, worked with A&E executive producer Greg Henry and together, they came up with the show’s premise which, believe it or not, is perfectly legal. (They checked!) The plan: to receive feedback from the participants on how to make the jail safer and more responsive to inmates’ needs.
The prison system in the US festers with gang rivalries, drug abuse and violence. Contraband routinely makes it to the “pods” – the open-plan rooms where inmates stay – and everything from mobile phones to pointed shanks can be found hidden under the bunks beds or inside toilets. While cameras are in place, they do not always help because they need to be constantly monitored. Besides, inmates can conspire in hushed tones that the cameras may not detect.
After a massive trawl through potential candidates, the team behind 60 Days In zeroed in on seven people to enter the jail for the show’s first season: Zac, an ex-Marine; Barbra, a stay-at-home mother; Jeff, a security guard; Isaiah, a high school passout whose brother was a convict; Tami, a police officer; Maryum, a social worker and daughter of boxing legend Muhammad Ali; and Robert, a teacher.
Each of the participants had their own reasons for entering the programme. Zac wants to work for the Drug Enforcement Agency, and he hoped that the experience will help him understand drug crime better. Isaiah, on the other hand, was pushed into the programme by his mother, who hoped that the experience will ensure that he keeps out of jail.
All participants were given a cover story to explain to fellow inmates why they were in prison. No one inside the prison system, save Sheriff Noel and his deputy Captain Scottie Maples, knew about the show. The production crew’s presence was explained away to the corrections officers and the inmates as a show about first-time offenders.
The series is intensely gripping, even though it appears stagey. The producers rely on cliffhangers to keep the suspense high, which makes 60 Days In feel more like a crime drama than a show about real people in real situations facing danger inside the prison.
In spite of its avowed goals, however, the series did not help Sheriff Noel achieve his noble aims. Apart from Zac, none of the inmates had particularly relevant feedback when they emerged from the programme after two months.
Tami, Barbra and Maryum, the women in the show, were almost exclusively focused on their personal journeys inside the prison. 60 Days In took its worst toll on Tami, who experienced intense isolation and anxiety during her time inside, and chose to leave the police force after the show.
On the men’s side, the situation was scarcely better. Jeff was attacked by a fellow inmate on the second day of his stay, and was promptly removed. Robert never took the thing seriously – he tampered with the cameras, was shunted into segregation, and eventually sent home. Isaiah’s personal journey was perhaps the most moving – he resolved to enter college and keep away from a life of crime.
Overall, 60 Days In works because of its theatrical presentation. One of the real inmates, DiAundré Newby, has since criticised the makers for false editing and apportioning tensions inside the pod to non-existent causes. Watching the show, one gets the same feeling. Nothing really untoward happens, yet with its lingering shots and dramatic reveals, the show attributes to the proceedings a menace they have not earned.
For obvious reasons, both seasons of the show were shot before the first one was broadcast, and for the same reason, there will be no third season. It’s great television, sure, but it’s not social work and the disingenuousness of both Sheriff Noel and A&E to couch it as such increases with each episode.
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