‘Lockup,’ MSNBC reality show, films six episodes in Fairfax County jail

December 23, 2013

In the Fairfax County jail, “Lockup” supervising producer Christopher Rowe (left) and audio engineer Ponch St. Hilaire (right) speak with Brenda Brewer of Alexandria, who was filmed for at least one episode of the series. (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post)

If you’ve ever wondered what life in jail is really like, you’ve got two options: Get arrested or watch “Lockup,” a reality show on MSNBC that was shot in various county jails, and some state prisons, around the country. Soon, you’ll be able to see what life in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center is like, because “Lockup” has just finished four months of filming inmates, staff members, families and others at the 1,000-inmate facility in Fairfax City.

As with most reality shows, the network that broadcasts the program is not its originator. The shows are typically created by independent production companies. In this case, it’s California-based 44 Blue, which has been doing “Lockup” since 1999, though MSNBC is closely involved in the process, from site selection to writing and editing, and bears ultimate responsibility for the content. 44 Blue’s five-person crew spends about four months in a jail or prison, searching for interesting characters willing to share their stories on camera, then produces six one-hour episodes that are self-contained and do not form a story arc from one week to the next. The show airs on weekends on MSNBC, gets high viewership and has more than 260,000 fans on Facebook.

Some corrections officials say no when approached by 44 Blue. When the producers approached then-Fairfax Sheriff Stan Barry last spring, he said he spoke to them at length and that “they were really open” about their intentions. “They gave me a list of all their shows, so we called around to some of [the jails featured],” he said, adding that none reported much of anything negative. He also thought he didn’t have anything to hide in the Fairfax ADC.

“The deputies do a good job,” he said. “Most people in Fairfax don’t even know we have a sheriff’s office. I thought it’d be good for morale, plus give us a public face.” He said he told 44 Blue “they might find our place a little boring. There’s no yelling, just pretty quiet and calm.” Barry has since retired, and new Sheriff Stacey Kincaid said the crew was “very professional and gave us an opportunity to showcase our facility.”

I trailed the “Lockup” crew as they worked in the Fairfax jail one afternoon recently, and they clearly knew their way around the place. We went through back stairwell and various cell blocks and offices, visiting with some of the inmates they’d gotten to know while spending six days a week, 12 hours a day, in the jail for four months, supervising producer Christopher Rowe said.

“Lockup” is not looking for the shallow drama or clueless chatter of shows such as “Real Housewives” or “Jersey Shore.” Its aim is journalistic, Rowe said — to realistically capture life behind bars, for both inmates and staff. “It’s just an interesting world not many people get to see,” Rowe said. They look at daily life in the jail, the prisoners discuss how they got to this point, and they talk about their families, whom we sometimes see. They also speak to the sheriffs and jail commanders to get their philosophy of corrections, and Kincaid said she was interviewed for the show. “Lockup” recently spent time with controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Maricopa County, Ariz., showing both the conditions in his jail and his candid assessment of why he does things his way, including one episode where 5,000 people gathered to protest his policies.

But why Fairfax, a wealthy suburb with a low crime rate and a jail with some empty cell blocks? Rowe said that the team wanted to draw from a wide variety of places and that this was the first time they had been granted access to a jail in Virginia or in the D.C. area. (The Post reported in 2011 that “Lockup” repeats get higher ratings in this area than live newscasts on the other cable channels.) Plus then-Sheriff Barry agreed to terms that allowed them to roam the facility and cover what they wanted.

Rowe and his crew aren’t sure what kind of inmates they’ll focus on when they arrive at a new jail. “Some of it is just going into [housing] units, taking the temperature” Rowe said, ” ‘What’s the vibe in here? Who’s interesting?’ Maybe it’s the big loud guy in the middle, or maybe it’s the quiet guy in the corner. A lot of it’s just being there, stumbling into stuff.”

While filming for the MSNBC show "Lockup," supervising producer Christopher Rowe and director of photography Mac McAleeman shoot some "B roll" outside the entrance to the Fairfax County jail. (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post)
While filming for the MSNBC show “Lockup,” supervising producer Christopher Rowe and director of photography Mac McAleeman shoot some “B roll” outside the entrance to the Fairfax County jail. (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post)

Shortly after they arrived in Fairfax in August, a high-profile murder trial began in the adjacent courthouse. Prisoner Julio Blanco Garcia was being tried for the slaying of teen art student Vanessa Pham, and a judge had allowed a TV camera to film the proceedings, an ultra-rarity in Fairfax. Rowe said that they approached Blanco Garcia about being interviewed but that he declined.

For six episodes, “Lockup” needs about three interesting characters per show, who typically do not repeat. Rowe said they had found such characters in Fairfax but didn’t want to reveal specifics. I asked how they persuade people to share their stories at such a pivotal, and sometimes embarrassing, time in their lives. “Everybody’s got their own reasons,” Rowe said. “I’m sure some people want their story out there. Some people want to be famous. We tell them we want to show people what life is like, for you and the staff.” No one is filmed without their consent.

One person who will be featured on the show is Brenda Brewer, 63, of Alexandria, who is awaiting sentencing on various larceny charges. She said she has been in and out of the Fairfax jail since she was 18 and has known Sheriff Kincaid since she was a deputy in a cell block.

I asked her why she agreed to be on “Lockup.” “We used to look at it on TV,” she said. When they asked her, “At first, I was shocked that it was here.” She seemed flattered they had asked her. Pressed, she said, “I want to do it because this will really help me look at myself. I’m 63. I’m done coming through here.”

The show might seem open to the criticism that it glorifies criminals. Rowe said 44 Blue and MSNBC were very conscious of that, and made sure to reach out to crime victims when those being featured had committed crimes against persons. In a recent episode from Grand Rapids, Mich., a prisoner discussed his upcoming sentencing for murder, and the victim’s mother was then shown tearfully condemning the prisoner in court. The prisoner returned from court and said into the camera that he had been planning to apologize to his victim’s family but that after being called out by the mother, he changed his mind. That won’t look too good at the parole board hearing.

Rowe said he and his colleagues at 44 Blue began editing footage for the six episodes while they were still in Fairfax, in order to have them ready to air next summer. They also receive intensive input from executive producer Elise Warner at MSNBC in New York. “I talk with them every day,” Warner said. “We’ve all worked together for years.” Though the show launched in 1999, it went on hiatus after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and returned in 2005 with a new format, “Extended Stay,” in which a series of episodes are produced instead of just one. They have also visited nine other countries, Warner said, to show the difference between American jails and those elsewhere. Warner is involved in editing the script, looking at footage, editing the show and monitoring legal issues and broadcast standards, all of which ensure the show has a consistent “voice.”

Warner said MSNBC was “careful not to refer to our program as a reality series, but instead we call it a documentary series. Reality, as you well know, is not real at all. We work very hard to relate to our audience that we don’t manipulate any part of our stories as is done in the ‘reality’ genre.” And she lauded the 44 Blue crew members who spend so much time in jails, a stressful situation even when you get to walk out at the end of the day. One crew member has spent 630 days in various jails for “Lockup,” almost two years. In Fairfax, Rowe was joined by associate producer Jake Hekter, audio engineer Ponch St. Hilaire, production assistant Kevin McSeveney and director of photography Mac McAleeman.

And what was memorable to them about the Fairfax jail? “The overriding thing we’ve found,” Rowe said, “is how regimented and how strict it’s run.” He said Fairfax stood out for its discipline, particularly the policy of forcing inmates out of their cells at 8 a.m. every day and locking them out until 4 p.m., something he said he hadn’t seen elsewhere. “The inmates don’t enjoy that,” Rowe said. “But from a deputy’s perspective, it makes everything safer.”

The Fairfax shows are tentatively scheduled to air in June 2014.

Tom Jackman is a native of Northern Virginia and has been covering the region for The Post since 1998.
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