Civilians spend 60 days in ‘broken’ Ala. jail for A&E show

A pastor, a police officer and an entrepreneur were among those tasked with exposing corruption and contraband


Carol Robinson
Alabama Media Group

ETOWAH COUNTY, Ala. — The Etowah County Jail – the good, the bad and the ugly – will be featured on an A&E show that puts seven undercover volunteers inside a lockup for two months to help uncover corruption, contraband and more.

A pastor, a teacher, a police officer and an entrepreneur were among those selected to “struggle to survive” the intense program as Sheriff Jonathon Horton took over “one of the worst facilities the series has ever seen,’’ according to the network.

The Etowah County Jail  will be featured on an A&E show that puts seven undercover volunteers inside a lockup for two months to help uncover corruption. (Photo/A&E)
The Etowah County Jail will be featured on an A&E show that puts seven undercover volunteers inside a lockup for two months to help uncover corruption. (Photo/A&E)

Only three lasted for the “60 Days In” duration, and when it was over, six correctional officers had been fired and 11 resigned.

“You get a real look inside and I don’t know if people are prepared for that reality,’’ Horton told AL.com Tuesday. “I knew when I came into office this jail had a lot of problems, but it was pretty extreme.”

Horton was sworn into office in January 2019 after defeating longtime incumbent Todd Entrekin in the GOP primary. AL.com had previously reported Entrekin had personally pocketed more than $750,000 worth of funds allocated to feed inmates in the county jail that he oversaw as sheriff. The story made national headlines.

After he was elected, and before he was sworn in, A&E approached Horton about beginning his tenure under the watchful eyes of “60 Days In.”

Though he had never watched the show before he was approached about doing it, Horton quickly got caught up and researched it. Doing it, he said, was basically a free audit for the jail.

Though the jail also has a federal contract to incarcerate hundreds of immigrants accused of being in the country illegally, Horton said the federal detainees were in no way part of the show.

One of the show’s trailers opens with a scenic view of Etowah County and voice-over by Horton:

“Welcome to Etowah County, Alabama, the Heart of Dixie. We are a very conservative, Christian community. There’s a lot of things we don’t do on Sunday. We don’t cut grass, we don’t hunt, it’s the sabbath day. We enjoy eating Friday chicken and work six other days of the week.

“I’m Jonathon Horton and I’m the new sheriff in town. I took office Jan. 14 and cameras were rolling the whole time. I wanted to become sheriff so I could make a difference in the detention center and the community.”

“This jail is really broken,’’ Horton said in the trailer. “We need ’60 Days In’ more than any jail in America.”

The series follows seven people who volunteer to go undercover, spending 60 days as inmates behind bars. Their goal is to obtain evidence of questionable or illegal activities within the jail that might be missed by the correctional officers and surveillance systems.

The existence of the undercover program is kept secret from the inmates, the guards, and most of the jail officials. They receive instruction on how to act around other inmates, and they are each given a pseudonym and a cover story, including details of the (fake) criminal charges on which they were arrested.

Because there was construction going on at the Etowah County Jail, Horton said it was easy to install the show’s cameras without the knowledge of most of the employees.

In fact, it wasn’t until 1 p.m. Tuesday that they were told that the show had been filming. Many were under the impression that they were taking part in a documentary. “They were shocked, I think,’’ Horton said.

The show supplied a group of volunteers willing to go in undercover, and Horton was able to play a role in the selection of the final seven. They were then trained at a remote site in Trussville as to what to look for once they were on the “inside.” That training, Horton said, will be aired on the series as well.

The volunteers were monitored 24/7 once inside the jail, and they had “signs” that they were to give if they wanted out or appeared to be in danger. Four of the seven left early, but Horton said he can’t yet say why. “You’ll have to watch and see,’’ he said.

In Horton’s first week on the job, he led a major shakedown at the facility. In one day, he found more than 200 broken door locks, drugs and removed more than two tons of contraband such as razors, synthetic contraband and more.

“I brought the camera crew with me so they could document just how messed up this place was,’’ Horton said on a trailer. “As sheriff of Etowah County, I’m a firm believer the buck stops with me, good or bad.”

“I was expecting some problems,’’ he said, “but I never expected it to that magnitude.’’

Horton said many changes have already been made. Because of the show, they were able to learn how contraband was getting into the jail (often coming back in with inmates from court appearances) and how inmates were able to send messages to each other (via lunch trays.)

Earlier this month, Horton announced the implementation of the Intercept Scanner, a new state-of-the-art, full-body contraband detection system. The scanner was installed November 6 in the jail’s booking area where inmates are first processed.

“I learned a tremendous amount,’’ Horton said of doing the show. “There were even some things we learned that 20-year veterans hadn’t known about.”

“60 Days In” is produced by Lucky 8 for A&E Network with Greg Henry, Kim Woodard and Jeff Grogan serving as executive producers. Shelly Tatro, Brad Holcman and Molly Ebinger serve as executive producers for A&E Network.

The series, featuring Etowah County, will return on Jan. 2 at 9 p.m. central time.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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