The producers, crew and participants behind A&E’s docuseries “60 Days In” knew the project wouldn’t be easy to pull off. But they still weren’t prepared for “Sewergate.”
“60 Days In,” which airs its season finale Thursday night, follows seven people as they go undercover as inmates in Indiana’s Clark County Jail. Only the Sheriff and a handful of other officials know that there are actual non-offenders in their midst; the inmates, guards and most other officials assume the cameras are there to shoot a documentary on first-time offenders.
Two production teams operate on the ground: A control room team, operating robo-cameras 24 hours a day; and an electronic news gathering (ENG) team that actually goes into the jail pods and interacts with the inmates and guards. When a city sewer line outside the jail broke, causing sewage flooding inside the facility, “60 Days In’s” production team was in the middle of filming Season 2 – and still went inside.
“Our team experienced everything, from walking through the raw sewage, smelling everything that everyone else had to smell,” said co-executive producer Kelly McClurkin. “It’s definitely an added challenge.”
Added executive producer/showrunner Jeff Grogan (“Intervention”): “Nothing like this had ever happened at the jail before. It was a crazy coincidence that we happened to be shooting there and documenting a disaster happening. One of the things that I found most surprising is that none of our participants tapped out. Just given how miserable that was. They don’t have to stay. I don’t know if I would have been able to.”
Among the participants in Season 2, all of whom agreed to be incarcerated at the jail for 60 days: A criminology student, a retired state police captain, a former corrections officer, an attorney for the California department of corrections, and the founder of Parents of Incarcerated Children.
The participants are all given extensive safety training by Clark County, Ind., sheriff Jamey Noel, who created the program. (A sample piece of advice: Don’t use the word “bitch” in jail, as it can get you into a lot of trouble.)
“At the same time, we don’t want to give them too much information so that they don’t have an authentic jail experience,” Grogan said. “Things like how does the commissary work, we want them to figure out on their own. What’s the bathroom situation like, how do you take a shower. Anything that doesn’t directly relate to their safety, we want them to figure out on their own.”
Everyone is given a backstory, and a name similar to their own so that they quickly get used to responding to it. The participants are also given both a visual and verbal cue in order to signal to the control room that they need to talk.
When that happened, the show’s production team and Sheriff Noel went on high alert. “Often it was someone who came out, talked and said they wanted to go back in,” said executive producer Greg Henry, who runs production company Lucky 8 TV. “And sometimes it was, ‘I’m out.’ And at that point, we have to figure out how to get them out.”
That wasn’t easy. “The participants understood that they were actually incarcerated and under the care and custody of the Clark County Correctional Center,” Grogan said. “This is a working facility, so it had to look normal to the eyes of the officers and the inmates.”
In Season 2, one participant quickly left after getting sick, while another departed after being threatened by a real inmate. No one’s cover was ever blown, although the fact that it might happen kept the production team on its toes.
“One of the things we have to be very careful of, when we pull participants out for interviews, we also have to make sure we’re pulling just as many inmates, if not more, for interviews,” Grogan said.
The ENG team was also stuck to the cover story that this was just a documentary about first-time offenders. “It was important that we were never lying to them,” Grogan said. “We’re just not giving them the entire story. It just so happens that the first-timers that were following have also not been charged with anything. Coming up with careful ways to answer the question when people ask what we’re doing.”
Henry said the strategy was about hiding in plain sight. “We were serving two masters, which was the series that everybody knows were making but also following the stories of the people we put in. When people would walk in for the first time, that was the critical window. We always thought that right when someone walked in, that’s when the cover is going to be blown. You only know that it’s blown once its blown, and it was never blown.”
McClurkin said she was surprised at how quickly the real inmates got used to the cameras and returned to their normal behavior. “I’d say it was within hours,” she said. “They were back to how they normally are on a daily basis. I think that’s one of the great things with the robo-cams, we do get to observe every day life because they do forget that the cameras are there. They go about their life and business in jail like they normally would.”
But the participants would also soon adjust to life as inmates – and eventually, as the 60 days progressed, fell in line with the system. “We call it ‘going full-inmate,” Grogan said.
Added McClurkin: “You can see throughout the course of the series, you can pinpoint the moment when you see one of the participants go full inmate.” Sometimes, that meant they wouldn’t be as forthcoming during the interviews, as they lived by the inmate code (forgetting that they were there specifically for the TV show).
“In the time that they spend in the facility they absolutely become inmates, and it’s always surprising to me when we bring them out, how many of them would refer to the inmates as ‘we’ and ‘us,'” McClurkin said.
“60 Days In” has already had an impact on the jail system in Clark County, Grogan said. Among the immediate changes: The jail added two body scanners, after seeing how easy it was for drugs to be sneaked in through intake, by inmates, corrections officers and anyone visiting the jail. More medical staff has also been added.
And in the bigger picture, Grogan said Clark County judges began sentencing people differently based on what they saw on the show, especially with drug addicts. “They thought they were helping by sending them to jail and giving them these tough sentences, thinking this will help them dry out and sober up,” he said. “They now realize it’s not helping them at all. The numbers at Clark County jail are actually much lower now since the show started airing, by almost 100 inmates.”
Seasons 1 and 2 were filmed back-to-back in order to keep the undercover program a secret. Now that it’s been revealed, Henry admitted it would be tough to do another season the same way. But he’s optimistic they could crack that idea, should A&E renew “60 Days In” again.
“It has had an impact and value,” Henry said. “We’re in contact with different facilities around the country to see what’s available to us. If we can figure out how to reengineer it and get it back up, we could have a positive impact again. [At Lucky 8] we’ve done lots of documentaries about prisons and jails, but I think this is one of the most meaningful ones. It’s the first time we’ve seen the world through their eyes.”
Here’s an exclusive clip from the Season 2 finale of “60 Days In”:
The season finale of “60 Days In” airs Thursday at 9 p.m. ET on A&E.