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The Saddest Reality Stars of All: Prisoners

Unlike the ‘Real Housewives,’ prisoners aren’t really exercising free will when they sign up to exploited on TV.

When Andy Warhol said everyone would one day have 15 minutes of fame, he was probably not picturing pampered and vacuous housewives or Honey Boo-Boo and her proudly inbred clan. But at least those people are free agents who made a conscious choice to display their shortcomings in public.

There is another, much uglier class of reality “stars,” however, and although some of them are surely happy for the attention, it would be hard, if not impossible, to describe any of them as making an entirely free choice.

I’m talking about the incarcerated men and women in America’s prisons and jails, a seemingly endless stream of whom have been broadcast on extremely popular and profitable shows like MSNBC’s Lockup in recent years.

Prison and jail administrators are pimping out prisoners to production companies who make what they euphemistically call documentaries by filming the most deranged inmates they can find and putting them on the air to satisfy the prurient, jaded, and schadenfreude-filled desires of a desensitized public. We don’t allow TV cameras into mental institutions—not yet, anyway—so producers do the next best thing and capture the images of these walking wounded where they can: in jails and prisons, which by default have become our nation’s largest warehouses of the mentally ill.

The Lockup crew dropped by my neck of the woods recently, visiting the Cuyahoga County Jail in Cleveland to film its unhinged inhabitants (both prisoners and staff) and once again demonstrating the tone-deafness of our elected officials, who evidently see nothing wrong with this type of abuse. The series was produced last summer, long before alleged monster Ariel Castro began a residence there, awaiting trial on kidnapping, rape, and murder charges (rumor has it that Castro was tearing the threads out of his bedding to use as dental floss), and aired last month.

Now these folks who OK’ed the Lockup production are the same folks who make deals with phone companies that charge prisoners unconscionable rates (up to $25 for 15 minutes in some facilities) just to stay in contact with their families—even though they know full well that such phone contact has proven to reduce recidivism. These administrators and officials actually are giving pimping a bad name.

The question is, can people who are in custody really freely consent? What if they refused to participate—would there be retaliation from their warders? Would those who did participate be rewarded in some manner? An extra piece of chicken is a big incentive in a county jail.

Why do the jail and prison administrators treat those folks the courts have entrusted to their care in such a despicable manner? For the same reason dogs lick their balls — because they can. When one deals with the failures of society on a daily basis it’s difficult not to become calloused and jaded.

But let’s back up a bit, to Detroit, 2010, when one of those “reality” crime shows was filming in that city. The cops were so eager to put on a good show for the camera, the SWAT team used a flash-bang grenade on a residence (they were supposed to be searching for a man who sometimes resided there), went in with guns blazing, and killed a 7-year-old girl named Aiyana Jones.

A crew for the A&E reality show The First 48 had been shadowing Detroit homicide detectives for months and filmed the incident.

Geoffrey Fieger, an attorney for Jones’s family, said the video shows an officer lobbing the grenade and then shooting into the home from the porch. “There is no question about what happened, because it's in the videotape,” Fieger told the Associated Press. “It's not an accident. It's not a mistake.

Of course the ensuing outrage drove the camera crew out of town, but they only set up shop and began filming in the next locale, which meant any county jail where administrators were dense enough to allow them in. By now those in decision-making capacities should know better than to allow these reckless production crews in, since they twist the truth all out of recognition while stripping prisoners, even those who are “willing participants,” of any remaining shreds of dignity. It’s akin to caging animals and then poking them with sticks for the amusement of the audience—the only difference is, here they use cameras instead of sticks.

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Trash TV is ubiquitous, of course, but what’s so upsetting about shows like Lockup is that they can only be produced in spaces owned by the public: jails and prisons. Even privately run prisons are still owned by the state (they’re leased to the private operators) and are under tight supervision of prison officials. So some public or elected official has to give approval to bring this type of garbage to the airways, no matter who is in physical control of the population.

After suffering through two back-to-back episodes of Lockup: Cleveland, I was left to wonder how MSNBC, a network that played such an important part in the last presidential election cycle—with shows by Rachel Maddow, Al Sharpton, Ed Schultz, and Chris Matthews—could put its name on such trash.

During the entire two hours of what was billed as “high drama behind bars,” Lockup: Cleveland focused on four “incidents”: a bologna sandwich being taken from one prisoner by another; ditto a $4 phone card; a splintered piece of a wood pallet that was allegedly turned into a crude shank; and a prisoner flipping out and using his own feces to write the word “Satan” on the wall of his isolation cell. That was it. And like all the other shows of this genre, it was bullshit.

It is downright shameful to allow cameras into the Cuyahoga County Jail to film the few demented souls that are on their way to various prisons and not to mention the fine efforts of administrators like Ken Kochevar, who has worked tirelessly to bring literacy and GED classes into the institution. But once these cultural scavengers are let in with their cameras, you never know what they are going to put on the air ... no matter how much positive footage is filmed. They didn’t come for the positive, and any administrator or elected official in America should know that by now.

So the question still remains: what’s the upside for the public, who actually owns these facilities?

There was an indication that MSNBC, at least, may be rethinking its reliance on these shows. In a recent profile, Phil Griffin told The New Republic that he’s cutting back on Lockup “because he felt they undercut the network’s brand identity.”

Even Rachel Maddow, who wrote her doctoral thesis on AIDS reform in prisons, seemed surprised by the seemingly magnanimous move. “‘He busted into prisonville,’ Maddow says, admiringly. ‘Those shows rate spectacularly well. They make so much money. It’s like having an ATM in the lobby that you don’t need a card for. And to make the decision to give up some of that free money in order to expand the news footprint of MSNBC—had I been in Phil’s shoes, I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to do that.’”

While enterprises that are beholden to stockholders will produce and air virtually anything, no matter how scandalous or culturally depraved, local and state run facilities should not continue to be enablers. It’s a virtual guarantee that the Federal Bureau of Prisons will never let these slick and sick operators into their facilities so that a quick buck can be made off of misery.

In an era where prisoner reentry is finally moving onto the public radar, shows like Lockup simply make it harder to change views of this demographic, and changed public views would lower recidivism rates, thusly lowering our incarceration tax bite.

This type of reality programming is not even close to real journalism (not to mention, it also glorifies negative gang behavior and violence, thus creating more of it), and these greedy producers are coming perilously close to abusing the First Amendment ... similar to crying “Fire!” in a crowded theater. We simply must demand from those in control of our publicly owned spaces that they not be misused in such a horrendous and demeaning manner.