When most people think of reality shows, they often conjure images of popular programs like “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” “Love and Hip Hop,” and “Jersey Shore.” Incarcerated reality shows are frequently absent from the broader conversation about this genre.
In the United States, 2.3 million individuals, predominantly men of color, are incarcerated, and an additional 5.7 million are under the supervision of the criminal justice system. Notably, 70 million people have a criminal record, including 18 million with felony convictions. The troubling reality is that over 40% of adults released from prison return to incarceration within three years.
Major television networks, such as MSNBC, A&E, and Netflix, renowned for their content releases, particularly in the realm of Incarcerated Reality Shows, contribute to the portrayal of the criminal justice system. These shows, including titles like “60 Days In,” “Behind Bars,” “LockUp,” “Jailbirds New Orleans,” and “Girl Incarcerated Young And Locked Up,” often feature individuals who, unfortunately, end up being re-incarcerated. Have you ever wondered if the individuals featured in these shows? Do incarcerated reality show cast members receive compensation for their time on screen? Do they get any labor protections?
• Support America on Trial, Inc., a grassroots organization dedicated to decarceration and systemic change through empowering people targeted by incarceration and police brutality.
• Sign and share the petition to abolish “60 Days In.”
• Join the #AIRS campaign to abolish incarcerated reality shows.
As a former incarcerated leader in the movement to end mass incarceration, I’m acutely aware of the harm that incarcerated reality shows can inflict. They can distract from the messages championed through years of hard work from directly impacted leaders, grassroots movements, and community organizers. Those who have reentered society after serving time have played a pivotal role in rebuilding their communities from the ground up. Leaders put sweat, blood, and tears into the fight for a transformation of the criminal justice system. Incarcerated individuals who appear on reality shows are doing work to benefit networks and producers but lack federal and state employment protections, including minimum wage, without paid sick leave, mandatory overtime compensation, OSHA safeguards, or the right to unionize.
These incarcerated reality shows fail to address the profound issues that incarcerated individuals grapple with daily, whether it’s detention, reintegration into society, or working for meager wages. In states like Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas, incarcerated labor remains unpaid.
A recent participant on “60 Days In” revealed that the reality show makes incarcerated individuals sign contracts while withholding vital information about what will be filmed. This tactic shields the network and its affiliates from potential lawsuits if detained persons later demand compensation for their participation. The vast profits these shows generate from individuals in low-income communities undergoing incarceration pose a serious ethical dilemma.
A&E’s “60 Days In,” MSNBC’s “LockUp,” Netflix’s “Jailbirds New Orleans,” and the U.K. show “Screw” are big business. For instance, “60 Days In,” launched on March 10, 2016, has run for eight seasons, amassing an estimated $42 million in revenue. Each episode carries a budget of $375,000, yet not a single dollar finds its way to the incarcerated individuals featured on the show. While the A&E series agreed to reimburse the county for jail-related expenses, including officials’ salaries and overtime costs during filming, this gesture still falls short of addressing the broader issue… With the show being broadcast in over 100 countries and garnering 1.5 million viewers, how many of them are genuinely aware of the realities of mass incarceration and its impacts on individuals?
According to a study titled “When the Viewer Goes to Prison: Learning Facts from Watching Fiction,” American perceptions of incarceration are profoundly shaped by depictions of prison life in television and movies (Science Direct). Unfortunately, most of these portrayals are fictional, dramatized, and laden with stereotypes about the incarcerated population. Despite their fictional nature, these shows have the power to significantly influence people’s understanding of the real world and impact their views on public policy, particularly in areas where they lack personal experience.
The #AIRS (#Abolish Incarcerated Reality Shows) campaign has been launched to eliminate prison and jail reality TV shows that exploit the harsh realities faced by incarcerated individuals for entertainment and profit. The movement is actively engaged in organizing rallies, marches, outreach programs, and speaking events with the aim of challenging influential figures within the network, including A&E CEO Paul Buccieri, and calling for the removal of “60 Days In.” This campaign coalition brings together directly impacted leaders, film writers, and various organizations, all working together to end this exploitation and restore the dignity of those whose experiences have been sensationalized and commodified by reality television. This exploitation contributes to the societal stigmatization of incarcerated individuals and hinders their opportunities for reintegration into their communities.
The movement to remove reality shows and movies from television has been in existence for some time. The next time you watch a show or a movie featuring an incarcerated person, consider asking yourself more inclusive questions about the lives of those who have experienced incarceration.