Ga. jail in the spotlight for the latest A&E '60 Days In' season
The show features multiple people each season voluntarily opting to be incarcerated for 60 days to understand what life is like inside the prison system
By Rodney Ho
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
MCDONOUGH, Ga. — "60 Days In" has been a staple show on A&E for seven seasons going back to 2016, including visiting the Fulton County jail in 2017.
The show has featured multiple people each season voluntarily opting to be incarcerated for 60 days to understand what life is like inside the prison system, bond with other inmates and educate the prison top brass about what's going on. Prison officials can then (hopefully) improve the situation for both the guards and the inmates.
The upcoming season, debuting Aug. 18 at 9 p.m. on A&E, returns to Georgia, this time to the jail in Henry County. The difference this time around: the seven fake inmates are all ex-convicts. They have collectively spent more than 40 years inside jails and prisons in the past and their motivations to go in mostly involve helping others.
Their past crimes include armed robbery, drug use and gang-related weapons possession.
Only a handful of high-level jail officials know who they are. The trick is for the seven not to blow their cover while also gathering useful intel. Sometimes in past seasons, they make all 60 days. Sometimes they do not. Occasionally, they get found out by other inmates and have to leave for their own safety.
If they need to get out either temporarily or permanently, they provide a specific distress signal to the producers: rubbing their temples and saying out loud, "I have a really bad headache."
To make matters worse, the inmates had to be quarantined with another prisoner for a draconian 14 days upfront inside a tiny cell 23 hours a day before entering the general population since the world was still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic at the time of production. That level of mental torture took an immediate toll on the first volunteers who enter the prison in the first episode.
"60 Days In" producers originally pitched the show to Reginald Scandrett, the first African American sheriff in the county's history, because of his efforts to reduce recidivism and build trust in the county's police force.
He also garnered headlines hiring NBA legend Shaquille O'Neal to be director of community relations, who recently purchased a mansion in McDonough. (O'Neal makes an appearance in the first episode.)
"I'm very clear on my purpose," Scandrett said in the first episode. "It's to erase the divide between law enforcement and the community."
Scandrett, in an interview with the Atlanta Journal Constitution, said he spent months doing his due diligence before saying yes to "60 Days In."
"I didn't want this to be a doom-and-gloom type of show that gave law enforcement a band name for the sake of entertainment," he said.
The jail houses about 790 inmates at capacity, ranging from people caught with pot to those accused of murder.
Scandrett did not like what he saw in the jail when he took the job. "I inherited an extremely challenged facility," he said. "I've been doing this 33 years. The challenges shocked the conscience. Cleanliness was deplorable. Inmates walked around unsupervised. People could get keys to the entire facility."
During the first episode, he said, "Quite frankly, it should have been condemned."
From the volunteers, he wanted to learn more about bullying, drug sales and usage, contraband and gangs. He also wanted to suss out guards who regularly mistreated inmates.
The volunteer inmates "were my eyes and ears," he said. "They also had institutional knowledge but had turned their own lives around."
The information he gleaned from the "fake" inmates helped him implement a strategic plan to improve prison life for everyone involved. In the end, he said he got rid of a third of the staff and hired 130 new people to infuse a new culture.
Given that "60 Days In" has been around for several years, Scandrett told employees that this was a broad-based documentary about the prison itself. Naturally, he said some people were suspicious that this was indeed "60 Days In," which happens now every season. He wouldn't say if that caused any real issues for the volunteers.
"In the end, we want to treat people humanely," he said, "not be judge and jury."
And watching some of the episodes, Scandrett said he felt A&E producers did a good job. "It's a fair representation of what happened," he said. "They show how we fix things in real time and handle crises."
- County Jails