Opinion: Nothing to Laugh About, Jailbirds New Orleans Makes a Mockery of the Incarcerated

An incarerated woman lookes out of prison bars.

At VOTE we stand by our commitment to amplify the voices of our currently and formerly incarcerated family. As Louisiana has once again ranked above all other states as the most incarcerated place in America, we see a stronger need to dispel any form of illusions as to what serving time looks like.

I did not want to watch a “scandalous” reality TV show that follows a handful of women over a few days in jail. I figured it would be a bunch of people yelling at each other, arguing over the phone, and some patronizing morality play on a mother with addiction. But when the show is set in our jail, here in New Orleans, which is under a federal consent decree and being run by a shady sheriff in a re-election campaign, it was sadly my duty to watch and review.

Having spent a few years awaiting trial at my own personal low point in life, several decades ago, I now see through the lens of my experience as a policy analyst with a law degree, who serves as the “prisoner advocate” on Tulane University’s Institutional Review Board. Similar to my Op-Ed that rebuked the prison for un-approved research on experimental drugs, this TV production is a reminder that people need to be protected from exploitation by outside entities, not by the grace of their all-powerful overseer.

Jailbirds is even worse than you thought. According to the Sheriff, this show was shot over a few days in early 2020. According to MacArthur Justice Center, a law firm that represents the people incarcerated in this jail, Sheriff Gusman twice said he shut down and terminated the show. Perhaps Gusman tried to, and perhaps 44 Blue Productions thought: ‘to hell with that, we have a contract and 30 hours of women yelling at each other. We can edit this down to 3 hours and sell it to Netflix. Kardashians meets Cops. Let’s get paid.’

But who got paid? One of the incarcerated people who is an actor in the show, told a close colleague of mine they did not get paid a cent. I have yet to read the waiver form they signed, but it should be interesting. I’ve seen my share of “Life Rights” contracts, as production companies have occasionally tried to rope me into their circuses. The Sheriff knew that each of these incarcerated actors had two lawyers: One for their criminal case (usually: Orleans Public Defenders), and one for their conditions of confinement (MacArthur Justice Center). Yet some combination of Sheriff Gusman and the Federal Court appointed prison administrator (who had control of the jail, which was taken from Gusman for non-compliance) did not consult the lawyers when offering up legal waivers and consent forms.

So who got paid? The Sheriff reportedly said 44 Blue Productions paid the guards, and they were extra staffing. Historically, Gusman has said staffing is an issue. Apparently not so if on TV. The main correctional staff actors are Lieutenant Picard and Captain Steele. It does appear they are “extra” in the staffing, as the “Brass” (Lt. and Cpt.) are not in the cell blocks, as they were in Jailbirds, and they definitely are not mixing and mingling with detained people. But there were also deputies behind the desk, and others, who likely were being paid their normal pay on their normal shift.

Filmed During Covid
It isn’t clear by the credits who is in charge of this production, nor who was in charge of the jail when Gusman was supposedly not in control. While the Sheriff reportedly claimed the show was shot in “early 2020,” we have one clue as to when the filming took place. The lone video visit scene, when Maurice picks up the phone to speak through to his sweetheart, he wipes the phone off, saying “this might have coronavirus.” The first confirmed case in New Orleans was March 9th, and Mayor Cantrell controversially canceled St. Patrick’s Day parades a day later, yet NOPD had to break up paraders nonetheless. Within a week, things were being universally closed down (schools, NBA season). For someone like Maurice to have casually wiped the phone for fear of “coronavirus,” the filming was likely in late March or April.

In early March, we were making calls upon the DOC and jails to implement safety protocols and release people, and by March 13, the DOC had suspended visits, while advocates, lawyers and judges were already seeking to not incarcerate anyone on low-level charges. A timeline of the show can easily be reconstructed, and it may call into question the Sheriff’s claims that he quickly implemented effective COVID protocols, as evidenced on the show.

By March 26, 2020, a joint statement from Sheriff Gusman and compliance director Darnley Hodge claimed that nine jail workers and three incarcerated people tested positive for COVID-19. While the NOPD and District Attorney Leon Cannizarro had already made commitments to reducing the number of people in jail, due to coronavirus, 44 Blue Productions was filming without masks and social distancing.

The Plot
So what is this show about, you ask? The main points of contention are:

  1. Commissary: Magen and Jamie conspire to get food. First, let’s note that Magen, who is innocent until proven guilty, gets put on lockdown for a couple days, and loses her privilege of purchasing food from the commissary. She is left to eat only the low-nutrition, small portion meals from the jail. This is actually very real. People need to lie and cheat to get extra food while incarcerated.

Gusman has said publicly that Jailbirds has nothing to do with the consent decree. However, one reason the jail was taken from him was his inability to develop and deliver mental health treatment to the women. His solution now is to build another building for mental health treatment (“Phase 3”), yet who will be monitoring the Buspar in a new building?

The show had no critical analysis nor societal commentary about drug prohibition or the traumas that lead people to self medicate. New Orleans is referred to as a “cesspool, but I love my city,” where either our family or ourselves is on drugs. This must be the “authenticity” that 44 Blue champions as one of it’s “core values” on their website.

About 44 Blue Productions
This team specializes in shows like this, with one about the EMS and another about the police, both giving us the trauma porn we seek from the comfort of our couch. The company’s Core Values include “embrace community” and are “committed to contributing to our community and demonstrating corporate social responsibility in our actions and through storytelling.” Really? They also “encourage collaboration” while exploiting incarcerated people, and financially benefiting off other’s pain. And they “build trust” and “promote inclusiveness” by showing an edited version of four days in jail. It is also oddly over-represented by white women, which is either a production decision or because too many Black women were saying “oh, hell no” to this circus.

Mixing pre-trial with convicted people
It wasn’t always clear by the editing, but it appeared there were two blocks (or “pods”), of E and F blocks, and not a clear line between the sides. Typically in a jail, innocent pretrial detainees do not mix with guilty convicted people. Also typically, when one tier is out for recreation in the block, the other will be locked in their cells- and people are not allowed to go up to the cell door and chit chat all day, such as in Jailbirds. This is where the Buspar deals get done, and the commissary plots go down.

The show also appears to have a camera crew locked inside a cell, during lockdown, with other women being snuck into a cell that isn’t their own. While Gusman says that the crews were protected at all times by deputies, perhaps these deputies are allowing these infractions to occur as an act? Or were there no deputies assigned to the camera, and 44 Blue Productions is going along with the infractions?

Speaking of pre-trial, Magen Hall’s criminal defense lawyer is likely outraged. Her trial for a high-profile 2nd degree murder case was supposed to happen this past week- yet was postponed by Hurricane Ida. One wonders if Netflix timed the series to coincide with her trial, or with the New Orleans sheriff’s election, but at any rate: defense counsel will likely seek to have every juror who has seen Jailbirds be struck from the jury pool. District Attorney Jason Williams, out of fairness, is likely to agree. There is no way to tell just how much 44 Blue Production “edited” Magen into a character, but this is not a flattering portrayal.

One of the main, yet hardly developed, plot lines is the long distance romance between Magen and a guy in another block, FuFu. As some explain, they can pass over three hours a day talking with someone through a toilet (in some jails or prisons it would be through a vent), particularly because there is absolutely nothing else to do. Sheriff Gusman talks about the programs and education in jail, but we neither see nor hear anything about it. The only book we see is used as a prop for a fake body under a blanket. But in case you were wondering if 44 Blue Productions had anything to do with jail management while on site, consider that after Magen was moved so her toilet no longer was directly above, or below, FuFu’s, in another episode FuFu gets moved to be back in toilet-connectivity with Magen. Okay.

Where is the Video of the Video?
Interestingly, Sheriff Gusman commonly touts the hundreds of video cameras inside the jail. Obviously, this would be no good for a “reality series,” as the women would not be all mic’d up, like they are in Jailbirds. The footage, if not deleted, would at least be a partial account of how this show was filmed inside our jail, during COVID. We see a trans woman held in a male block, women getting permission to twerk in the day room as a woman bangs a beat, apparently sheets tied into a rope (??), and someone seemingly have a mental health breakdown and get put on lockdown for her actions.

Although the Sheriff told reporters that the show was about showing the world what goes on in this jail, this production poses far more questions than it answers. There is no conversation about phone calls during COVID that cost $3 to connect, then 25 cents per minute, and a 15 minute phone call is $7. With some family members, like Maurice, obviously concerned about the well-being of people in the jail, these conversations, three times a day, are “starting to add up.” Nobody has $150/week just to make sure their people are alright.

It might have been interesting to hear more about the confidential informant, sent by the FBI to buy drugs off Julie, who was deep into her own heroin addiction. The informant overdosed and died, and Julie gets a 2nd degree murder charge. The informant was most likely similar to every other such informant: someone with an addiction who gets busted, then agrees to a deal where they can keep doing dugs as long as they inform on where they get the drugs. The FBI will even provide the money to buy the drugs. Most likely, the FBI bought the drugs their informant overdosed on, and there is no way for Julie, who is also staying high, to regulate the usage of the informant; nor is their any way for her to know the purity of the goods she is sharing from far down the production line. A regulated drug market, and a lack of law enforcement selectively encouraging drug use, might have prevented a death, and a conviction. 20 months after her arrest, and she is still awaiting trial.

I’m curious if Julie’s attorney was consulted prior to presenting her with a waiver and consent form, which is not unlike the police sending in a production team to initiate a witness statement by someone accused of a crime and represented by counsel. But that relationship, like this show, is just a big pile of hot garbage, and poetically appropriate as New Orleans only recently used the Sheriff’s Office top help clear out the big piles of hot garbage that haven’t been picked up since Hurricane Ida.

The societal conditions that lead so many people towards jail have been around since before 44 Blue Productions, you, or me were on the scene. Some of the incarcerated people in this show were toddlers during Katrina, and may have lost everything- including family members. Some are the children of a highly policed drug prohibition war, which reinforces intergenerational trauma and poverty, but none of that is here. What is here, sadly, is an indication that the current elected officials treat our incarcerated people like pawns, toys, and entertainment; caring about as much for their well-being and due process rights as when people were left to drown in Katrina’s floodwaters.

A full inquiry should be made, not just for this show, but for all such shows. Companies like 44 Blue Productions, their co-founders Rasha and Stephanie Drachkovitch, and their team, are free to make trash TV and sell it to us. But it should not be done in conjunction with government services we pay public servants to administer.

If the sheriff believes we all should have a right to shoot Reality TV in our jail, and if he isn’t charging production teams to go into our jail, then I challenge him to let me in there to create my own reality series. And I challenge Netflix to show it.

Bruce Reilly is deputy director of both Voters Organized to Educate and Voice of the Experienced (VOTE). He is formerly incarcerated, holds a J.,D. from Tulane Law School, and serves on two Institutional Review Boards for research. He is also a fellow of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Interdisciplinary Research Leader program, studying health care in jails and prisons.

Voice of the Experienced (VOTE) is a Louisiana based organization founded and run by formerly incarcerated people. We are committed to restoring rights.