The Gadsden Times on a reality show series spotlighting an Alabama jail:
We’ll wager that some folks have thought or maybe even said — seriously or jokingly — that events in Gadsden or Etowah County “would make a good reality show.”
Congratulations, your wish came true. Whether that’s a positive or negative — what the fallout will be — remains to be seen.
A&E revealed last week that the Etowah County Detention Center will be spotlighted in the sixth season of “60 Days In,” a show in which volunteers are placed into jails as undercover prisoners, not in pursuit of any prize money but to assess, document and report illegalities that have escaped the scrutiny of the facility’s staff and surveillance systems. Guards, inmates and most jail officials are kept in the dark, and separate cameras are set up to film footage for the series.
The first two seasons focused on Clark County, Indiana; the next two on Fulton County, Georgia; and the fifth one on Pinal County, Arizona.
Now it’s Etowah County’s turn. Sheriff Jonathon Horton said he was contacted by the show’s producers before he took office, and that A&E’s crews have been in the jail since “day one” of his administration.
And if the network’s teasers are accurate, this series is going to cause a whopper of a stir.
Seven people were placed in the jail. A couple could be considered “experts” — a corrections officer and a police officer. The others, according to the network, were an ex-marine, an entrepreneur, a political science major, a faith-based operations manager and a teacher of at-risk youth.
Only three of them survived the full 60 days, which according to A&E’s website is an unprecedented “get me out of here” rate for participants in the series.
The network’s press release gives a good reason why, calling Etowah County’s jail “one of the worst facilities the series has ever seen.”
That’s not going to surprise anyone locally. The jail isn’t ancient — it’s less than 30 years old — but it’s overcrowded and understaffed, and the infrastructure has taken a beating. We’ve reported on the broken door locks, security cameras and windows, and the other repairs that are needed. We’ve reported on the frequent if not constant turnover in jail staff, as people get fed up with doing a dangerous, near impossible job given the circumstances.
But while we try our best, online or print reporting doesn’t always convey the gravity of a situation, and complaints about jail conditions are often dismissed by Sheriff Joe Arpaio fans whose ideal standard for incarcerating wrongdoers is medieval dungeons.
Seeing this play out on TV over multiple episodes (previous seasons have averaged about 14) is going to have an impact. It’s also going to revive some painful memories — and stir up some still smoldering political ashes — concerning how we got to this point. This jail already is on multiple radars, and expect the Google alerts for “beach house sheriff” and “jail food controversy” to start buzzing pretty quickly, and the blogs and Twittersphere to fire up, when the first episode is presented at 9 p.m. on Jan. 2.
There’s no escaping that past or removing the risk of a black eye from this series — a sheriff’s office employee, after the secret was revealed, said, “This makes us look so bad” — but this experience can be a positive moving forward.
Horton said it’s given him a baseline of how to correct issues at the jail. Six corrections officers were fired and 11 resigned; the information that cost them their jobs came from the undercover cameras and planted “inmates.”
Steps have been taken to reduce the amount of contraband that comes into the facility — a shakedown right after Horton took office uncovered more than two tons of illicit stuff; another earlier this month netted a relative pittance — and in the correction officers’ work schedules.
A lot of people will tune in Jan. 2 and beyond — the ratings in Etowah County should be quite high — to see dirt. So be it. Just remember that dirt can be cleaned up.