NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Eight years ago, video shot inside the New Orleans jail of inmates using drugs, drinking beer and handling a gun prompted outrage and a costly federal consent decree that still hangs over Sheriff Marlin Gusman.
Now, a different kind of reality TV is drawing ire. A new Netflix series debuting next week promises an up-close, personal and “scandalous” look at women in the lockup — and critics are furious with Gusman over what they call an exploitative waste of resources.
“Jailbirds: New Orleans,” set to premiere Sept. 24, is the latest installment of a show that previously focused on incarcerated women in Sacramento, California. This time around, Netflix says in promotional material, “Feuds, flirtations and toilet talk go down among the incarcerated women at the Orleans Justice Center in New Orleans on this gritty reality series.” A two-minute trailer shows incarcerated women talking about their sex lives, a trumpeter performing on Bourbon Street and a handcuffed woman screaming in a jail elevator.
Already the show is igniting a backlash like the one in Sacramento, where activists said it presented a false portrait of a dangerously short-staffed lockup that failed to treat women’s mental health problems.
Both jails are under federal consent decrees. In a February report, federal monitors said the New Orleans jail was so understaffed that entire pods with dozens of inmates were left unattended on a daily basis.
The executive director of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition said Thursday that the new show is a distraction from fulfilling the jail’s reform pact. “The focus should have been on getting everything to the highest level of compliance, instead of filming the show,” Sade Dumas said. “To see a show make a mockery of a place that’s so serious and often deadly is disappointing.”
Dumas is also involved in a third-party campaign group, the PAC for Justice, seeking to elect a new sheriff.
Gusman declined an interview request for this story. A Sheriff’s Office spokesperson said he couldn’t participate due to the terms of the agency’s agreement with the “Jailbirds” production company, 44 Blue Productions LLC.
Mum was also the word from another politico, Oliver Thomas, who consulted on the show. Thomas, a WBOK radio talk show host who is attempting a comeback bid for the City Council, said he didn’t have permission from producers.
Three men died in the New Orleans jail last year, including one from an overdose and one from a suspected suicide. Federal monitors have said the jail remains a violent place for inmates and deputies alike.
U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, who oversees the consent decree, has voiced frustration about the lack of mental health care for women. Court-appointed monitors say New Orleans must build the jail a new “special needs” section to address that problem, but the proposal has been bogged down by objections from Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration, which prefers to renovate part of the existing jail.
Most inmates at the New Orleans jail were under psychiatric care last year. Bruce Reilly, deputy director of Voice of the Experienced, questioned how the “Jailbirds” producers were able to obtain informed consent from incarcerated women.
“Are you preying on people (who) have mental illnesses? There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered,” he said. “I don’t know how having a TV show that exploits people’s pain is taking care of them while they’re there.”
The Sheriff’s Office defended the show in a statement issued by a spokesperson, Phil Stelly. He said an agreement with the production company was signed in 2019 and that recording took place over four days in early 2020. The agency didn’t immediately clarify whether Gusman or the man in charge of the jail’s day-to-day operations at that time, Darnley Hodge, signed the contract.
“By sharing their stories and presenting the work of some of our deputies within the pods of the Orleans Justice Center, our expectation was that messages could be shared to show the common struggles that inmates face in their individual journeys to rebuild their lives and deter others from going down the same path of incarceration,” Stelly said.
The Sheriff’s Office said everyone involved in the production gave “individual consent,” and that incarcerated women “may have chosen to consult with their lawyers.”
Yet the show caught off guard the Orleans Public Defenders, who represent most of the inmates. In a joint statement with the Promise of Justice Initiative and other groups, the Orleans Public Defenders said they were “appalled” to learn about the show.
“That this documentary was allowed to happen is an abhorrent misuse of the sheriff’s time. Furthermore, Sheriff Gusman gave no official notice of the show’s filming and production,” the groups said.
In its statement, the Sheriff’s Office said the show’s production didn’t harm its chronically inadequate staffing. The show’s crews were accompanied by “off-duty security details” and normal jail operations weren’t affected, the agency said.
In Sacramento, the Sheriff’s Office billed the production company $42,211 to reimburse almost 500 hours of deputy overtime, according to The Sacramento Bee. The Orleans Sheriff’s Office didn’t immediately respond to a request for any invoices or checks.
The use of deputy time wasn’t the only question raised in Sacramento. One woman who was reprimanded for her role in a fight at the county lockup later told The Bee that the altercation was “damn near staged.” The newspaper found that other scenes were selectively edited for dramatic effect.
Meanwhile, 44 Blue Productions allowed controversial Sheriff Scott Jones to weigh in on its recording. The Orleans Sheriff’s Office contract with 44 Blue Productions says the company retains “editorial control” over the show, but it also gives the Sheriff’s Office the right to comment on raw video. The company promised to “use good faith efforts to resolve any such objection.”
Reilly, Voice of the Experienced executive, questioned how realistic the “reality” television show will really be.
“Once you put a camera on people, they’re going to start to perform,” he said. “If the guards are letting things happen, maybe encouraging things for the sake of dramatic effect, then they’re all acting and performing.”
Netflix and 44 Blue Productions didn’t respond to requests for comment. Reilly questioned whether their decision to stream the show shortly before the Nov. 13 election for sheriff should be treated as a “campaign donation” to Gusman.
This isn’t 44 Blue Productions’ first brush with controversy in New Orleans. The company also creates “Nightwatch,” which chronicles the city’s Emergency Medical Services paramedics as they go about their work. Critics have questioned whether the show distracts medics and obtains full consent from injured patients.