The Challenges of Producing a Prison Docuseries

Unscripted prison series bring legal and ethical challenges to the production and development processes that other unscripted genres don't face. Traditionally, these shows take an observational documentary approach to representing the stresses of prison life.  But last year's breakout hit, 60 Days In, put a twist on the traditional ob doc model by inserting 'real people' into the criminal justice system – which obviously adds a slew of variables to an already difficult process. To get a better idea of what these challenges are and how to handle them, we spoke with NPA member Greg Henry of Lucky 8 TV, executive producer of 60 Days In -  which begins its third season tonight, March 2, on A&E. 

 

Q: Why do you think 60 Days In has been so explosively popular?

A: I think the main reason is that this is a world we’ve seen before but never this way. Watching people “just like us” who are willing to go inside and show us the world through their eyes is – even for those of us who sit in the control room and make the show – hyper intense, gut-wrenching at times and addictive.


Q:How did the concept come about and what was your goal in developing 60 Days In? What do you hope people take away from the show?

A: The partners at Lucky 8 have easily done more than a hundred hours in prisons and jails between us so we’ve produced in this world for years. We were brainstorming ways to see worlds we knew in a new way. The kernel of the idea that became 60 Days In was born out of that and the question, “how would you or I do if we were incarcerated?” Our hope is that, in seeing ordinary citizens do time and share their experiences, a larger discussion about who should be incarcerated and for how long is generated. And of course, we also want people to be entertained.

Our hope is that, in seeing ordinary citizens do time and share their experiences, a larger discussion about who should be incarcerated and for how long is generated.


Q: Who is the audience for 60 Days In ? Where you surprised at the audience it attracted?

A: The audience has skewed well under the average for A&E which didn’t surprise us. The real time fixed rig element gives a voyeuristic style that is akin to a lot of the social media content out there. And the play-along of asking yourself “what would I do” feels like something that appeals to a younger audience.


Q: Did you pitch the show to many networks and/or was A&E immediately interested? How much was the network involved in shaping the show during development and production and how do you think that affected the overall series?


A: The idea came out of our being invited to A&E pitchfest. Out of that session, we went straight to series on Behind Bars: Rookie Year but didn’t want to give up on the concept. With the success of our first season, we brought 60 Days In back in a more fully baked form. Even then, we spent another 6 months shaping the show for an A&E audience and securing access. This is truly a project that starts with an initial spark of an idea but took a year and a ton of collaboration to build it out into the complex project that it is.


Q: How did you go about casting the participants, and how was it different from casting other reality shows?

A: We did a lot of non-traditional casting, reaching out to law enforcement groups, victims groups, social work networks, as well as looking at some of the more traditional outlets. But even when looking at those sites, we were scanning for archetypes and reaching out directly. We used a number of blind casting calls and went through hundreds of submissions. We wanted to try to find a pool of people that would help the Sheriff in addition to being willing to subject themselves to months behind bars.

We did a lot of non-traditional casting, reaching out to law enforcement groups, victims groups, social work networks, as well as looking at some of the more traditional outlets.


Q: What are the additional production considerations you faced when filming inside the jail and how did you handle them (including legal issues, safety of crew and participants, etc.)?

A: We’ve generated binders of legal research. I think the simplest way to think about the considerations and how we handled them was summed up by what we told our crew at the outset and reminded them of every day. Unlike any other show they’ve ever worked on, their primary responsibility was the safety and security of the participants. If we were diligent and did our job as a team so that the program would run as smoothly as possible, good TV would follow.


Q: There’s often a criticism with unscripted crime programming that it can be exploitative to people affected by the criminal justice system. What should producers take into consideration when creating a concept that involves people who are incarcerated or have been involved in a crime?

A: Jail, prison and the courts are a complicated world to the uninitiated with stakes that couldn’t be higher. We educate ourselves as best we can and years of experience help. But there isn’t a single project we enter into in this world or a story we begin filming without asking ourselves whether this person is willing to participate. And beyond that, we also take into consideration the effect of putting that person on television and what the impact could be on victims of the crime or family members. We strive to make provocative, riveting programming but when it comes to these worlds involving exclusive access, we never lose sight of the fact of the responsibility that comes with the invitation into the world.

We strive to make provocative, riveting programming but when it comes to these worlds involving exclusive access, we never lose sight of the fact of the responsibility that comes with the invitation into the world.


Q: How do you see the unscripted crime genre evolving in the future?

A: I think the re-telling of stories from the past or recent past will continue to become more cinematic and epic. They are perfect fodder for scripted-style series. As for the real-time crime stories, the genre can only evolve as far as the law and the constitution will allow. 60 Days In may be a bold undertaking but it still fits within a legal framework -but there’s definitely room to keep pushing.