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Home Daily News Are inmates being exploited for our entertainment?

Law in Popular Culture

I recently asked whether the true crime genre could cause more harm than good for criminal defendants. The reaction was mixed, but most everyone I spoke with in regards to the column mentioned the potential negative impact.

Jailbirds isn t really true-crime. Even still, the new Netflix series which focuses on inmates in the Sacramento County Main Jail potentially presents many of the same unfavorable consequences. Jailbirds feels more like reality television, and it carries with it many of the genre s biggest flaws.

The six-episode first season doesn t appear scripted in the same way as many other reality television shows; however, it feels forced at times. The interplay between the cast left me with the impression many of the subjects were acting for the camera. I was only able to make it through the first three episodes before I concluded that the series is little more than an attempt to capitalize on vulnerable individuals caught in a lose-lose situation.

While Jailbirds offers very little educational value as it relates to the criminal justice system, the small amount of entertainment it supplies comes only at the expense of the inmates and their dignity.

The camera and potential problems for prisoners

First and foremost, I have to wonder how and why the jail allowed such unfettered access to some of its inmates. From the looks of things, a vast majority of the scenes are actually filmed inside specific jail cells. Safety hazards notwithstanding, the camera crews act as an ever-present entity capturing the inmates at their best and worst.

The cast appeared at their worst more often than not. Could that be a result of the jail setting? Most likely. After all, we are dealing in large part with criminals. The vast majority of inmates in county jail fit into three categories: poor and sick people who can t make bond, people charged with crimes so severe they can t make bond, and people thought to be so dangerous they aren t allowed bond. Throw in the individuals already sentenced and awaiting transfer, and there is your county jail population.

However, some of the conduct could just be braggadocio for the camera. This is evident in a scene where one inmate attempts to distribute pills to another as she brags about her sexual prowess and flirtatious behavior. The other inmate plays dumb, but as she is continually pushed to take the pills, she finally mentions that there is obviously a microphone right over them.

Some inmates are more worried about the ramifications of their actions. Others don t seem to care. Multiple women demonstrate on camera how to make pruno (jail booze), and one inmate explains how she cons the correctional officers into giving her cold medication so she can craft an intoxicating concoction (which she proceeds to make for the camera and distribute to another inmate).

I don t know if any of the violations caught on camera resulted in criminal charges. They did, however, result in administrative sanctions that added more time to the inmates original sentences. Some might argue that activity occurs with or without a camera crew present. There s still no reason to glorify it.

Megan Monster Hawkins was one of the series main characters. She stated in an interview with CBS Sacramento at the time of the Netflix premiere that she was grateful to have participated in Jailbirds; however, she was arrested again within a week. Police said Hawkins was recognized by bank staffers when she to use a fake ID at the establishment. Hawkins denied the accusations in an ABC10 interview. Consequently, even if the violations caught on camera did not lead to additional criminal charges, the notoriety gained by participating in the series has led, at the least, to recognition that could prove problematic.

I like to think that most of the inmates refrained from participating at the advice of the local public defender s office. There s really no telling how the depictions of the participants deviant behavior impacted potential future charges.

A real-life Orange is the New Black ?

Although 90% of the Sacramento County Main Jail s population is male, the series focuses almost entirely on the female inmates. If the show was designed as an examination of the effects of incarceration on the female population, that spotlight would present a unique and somewhat original perspective....