With Very Special Guest Star… Inmate # 145324

There is a barrage of “reality” shows on television with a new lineup of “reality” stars who wear orange jumpsuits or black-and-white stripes. And I’m wondering if this is such a good idea.

There is a show called “60 Days In” where you, too, can be an inmate without committing a single crime. Law-abiding folks are admitted into jail as covert spies for the sheriff, reporting everything from crooked staff to drug smuggling. It follows a pattern: there’s the clueless, nice person, the intellect, the jerk, and the person who “turns” (a Stockholm Syndrome of sorts).  Then there is a show that follows inmates around with cameras, with a soundtrack, where we can watch them show out, shout down toilets, and talk about “getting out and staying out” of jail. Next, we can always tune into “Lockup” (much of the same), “The World’s Worst Prisons,” where the host tells us gravely he is “locked in alone” with “murderers, rapists, and thieves” (but along with a camera crew). A viewer can go to prison from the La-Z-Boy’s safety while getting pizza rolls and a beer in between shows.

The New "Reality TV" Star

Having worked in custody from jail to maximum psych wards, I know that only the noteworthy make the show: the contraband, fights, bad cops, emergencies. The larger percent – counts, chow hall, work details, inmate’s minor, consistent complaints – end up on cutting room floors.  (Who wants to watch an officer have a patient discussion with a grown adult regarding the inmate cleaning his room?) Like all “reality” shows, going behind bars is there to entertain first with reality succeeding.

These shows make jail and prison appear enjoyable, and doing time as easy to do. Inmates getting their hair braided and watching TV all day, weight room workouts, armloads of junk food (commissary) make incarceration a great alternative to life on the street.  

These “behind bars” shows create stars out of serial criminals, “the worst of the worst,” as the announcer likes to say. Always with booming background music and various camera angles, using the inmate’s jailhouse name, letting them ramble about just what a badass they are and how many bullets and blades they’ve outlived. The new entertainers have names like “Cut” with blue stars tattooed across their faces and doing twenty to life for rape. I can bet once the show airs, their mailboxes are full of fan mail.

The shows never focus on prison rape, PTSD of brutal stabbings and beatings, the raw fear, and lack of resources to escape the vicious cycle of recidivism. The viewer never goes beyond that dark curtain where tears flow at night, loneliness and despair of wishing life had turned better, somewhere, different choices made. The constant mistrust and visceral survival mode of incarceration both glossed over.

Thus, my concern. For too many young people, incarceration is a rite of passage or part of life. For young men in specific environments, machismo is essential. One dynamic in female gangs is proving females are harder than males. These kids see these shows as “reality”: enjoyable, doing time is easy, where they can be “stars.” And for kids or young adults desperately seeking power, or the fear of incarceration being the sole reason for avoiding crime, “reality prison TV” opens a path.

Television viewers have gone a step beyond the Osbornes, the Kardashians, housewives, the pregnant teens, and overweight gypsy little people; these are shows between that fine line of exploitation and (some) education - again - entertain first with reality succeeding. In my professional opinion, going into jails and prisons is an entirely different “reality” show. In reality, divorcing a 90-day fiancé or The Bachelor is easy. Doing time, not so much. 

Photo: Inmate Name: ZEBRASKY, ALYSSA BREANNE 0064893 - Boardman PD