A Few Words on Jail in America, Part Five: Jail on Reality TV

It is a truth universally acknowledged that reality shows contain very little reality. This includes those set in jail. It’s part of human nature to want assurance that evildoers are suffering, and since everything else is fodder for the camera, why shouldn’t this be, too? For this reason, there are scads of reality TV shows set inside jails and prisons. In this segment I’ll explain how much they get wrong and show you why it matters.

What are some things you see in these shows? You see inmates having mental health crises in very loud, dramatic ways. You see staff responding to fights. You see inmates who have been pepper-foamed, tasered, or put in restraint chairs. You see suicide attempts or their aftermath. In the better-done shows, you see inmates discussing the difficulties in their lives that have brought them to this place, or you see inmates talking about how dangerous they are.

All of the above are things that happen in jail. None of them are things that are happening all of the time, as reality shows make it seem.

This is one of the fundamental realities of the penal environment that reality shows do not capture: it is boring. It is so boring that inmates who have never before experienced mental health difficulties find themselves profoundly challenged. In fact, I once spoke with a prison psychologist who told me that when a new inmate arrives in a prison cell, a cellmate will often take it upon themselves to teach the newcomer how to lose themselves for hours at a time in the cell. There’s a similar dynamic in jail. You’ll see inmates do endless pushups, walk around the housing unit endlessly, or simply sleep entire days away. Managing boredom like this is a survival skill, and it makes for bad TV because it’s not very exciting.

The reality shows also make it look like jails and prisons can be terribly violent places, and this is absolutely true. What are common sources of violence in jail? There are fights over gambling debts. There is also gang-induced violence, sexual assault, and inmates suffering from mental illnesses lashing out, due to the treatment difficulties I discussed in my second segment. Violence in the penal system is the product of many layers of societal context, and an hour of sensational TV is unlikely to reflect this important truth.

Action is one of the prime ingredients of captivating TV, and these reality shows make sure to have plenty of it. But there’s a terrible consequence to this. Highly dramatic reality shows that make inmates look like a mass of dangerous people are actually a buttress to the prison-industrial complex. After all, if you’ve never entered a jail or prison, and this is what you’re shown, then you’re going to make a somewhat reasonable conclusion that these are clearly people who need to be locked away. You might conclude that we shouldn’t get rid of most prisons, because if we do, then these people might hurt you or your family.

Something else happens in many jails that’s not very exciting for reality TV — it’s the site of many badly-needed social programs, programs that are designed to help improve inmates’ lives both inside jail or prison and upon release. For example, some jails have free GED programs, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, programs to help men understand how to be good fathers when they get out, and classes for women to help them recover from having been victims of human trafficking. If you never see these very positive developments, you might wonder why it is necessary to provide such programming. Why, for example, should there be GED classes in jail? Perhaps because as of 1997, only 25.9 percent of jail inmates even possessed a high school diploma (and 14.1 percent possessed a GED). This is relatively old data, but quick Internet research will show you that the situation has gotten no better, and among the prison population may even be worse. Good social policy attacks problems at their source, and if you want to deliver education to the undereducated, jail is a great place to find them. Viewers should be wondering why our system so efficiently puts the disadvantaged behind bars, not watching the disadvantaged fight for their entertainment.

There’s more. Until now in these essays, I have not discussed our nation’s terrible history of racial injustice. I do not want readers to think I’m unaware or dismissive of this problem, nor sidestepping it in an effort to make my writings appealing to a wider audience. I’ve done it because everything I’ve discussed up to now generalizes to the entire system, regardless of race, gender or sex. Now I’m going to address race directly.

One of the biggest problems in American society, and arguably one of the biggest perpetuating forces of our racial divide, is that the United States of America is a very segregated nation. White people very often can avoid being around people of color if they desire. The races often go to school separately, worship separately, and certainly live separately. There are many areas in the United States where it’s quite possible for a white person not to encounter a person of color at all.

So what does it mean for our society, and for the impact of media upon it, that nearly half of the nation’s incarcerated population of 2.3 million is African American? If you’re a white person who has grown up with almost all white people, but you watch reality shows set in jail or prison, it means that one of your biggest sources of the answer to the simple question of “What are these people like?” will be in the context of seeing them as a danger to you. If you grow up that way, being shown no better, you may well vote for politicians who support the continuation of mass incarceration under the guise of being “tough on crime”.

Just as devastatingly, it means that children who aren’t white are being deprived of positive role models on television. Even now, it’s rare to find actors or actresses of color in leading roles, particularly in positive roles. Our media tells white children, “These people are dangerous.” But for so many children of color, the message is far more poisonous: “This is all you can be.”

The system facilitates the environment that brings out so much of this violence, and the TV shows that use that violence for ratings may persuade viewers that these inmates need to remain locked up. Our jails and prisons are now equal in population to a major urban area, and are filled mostly with nonviolent offenders. These shows help to make a case for perpetuating this disproportionate locking down of people of color, diminishing the likelihood of a just future.