Jail isn’t supposed to be a pretty place. Often, it gets downright ugly.
As Barbra and Zac entered the Clark County Jail in Jeffersonville, Indiana, they were patted down, fingerprinted and handed prison uniforms. It was the first day of their lockup in a place known for violence and illicit activity.
“It’s really hitting me how real this is,” Barbra said. “I have never been in jail before.”
Most inmates claim they are innocent, but Barbra and Zac really are. They are two of the seven volunteers going undercover as inmates to expose what really happens behind bars for a radical new A&E reality TV series “60 Days In.” A&E is partly owned by The Walt Disney Company, ABC News’ parent company.
Barbra is a military wife and a stay-at-home mom. Zac is a former marine who served in Afghanistan and wants to become a DEA agent.
“Seeking a career in law enforcement, I felt this would give me perspective that no other law enforcement officer has ever had,” Zac said.
For “60 Days In,” these innocent people are given fake identities and serve time for fake crimes, but the consequences are very real.
“It’s miserable,” Barbra said. “That’s the only word I can think of to describe it. This place is completely miserable.”
The show comes at a time when jails and prisons across the country have been in the headlines for violence and corruption. Just last week, an inmate fight at the Santa Clara County Jail in Santa Clara, California, was caught on camera — just one day after the sheriff installed cameras inside the jail at her own expense.
“It looked like two people, one hit him with the shoulder then the fight was on,” said Sheriff Laurie Smith. “Then a lot of other people jumped into the fight.”
Crime and misconduct at the hands of prison staff is on the rise too, increasing 90 percent in 10 years, according to the U.S. Justice Department‘s Office of the Inspector General (OIG). Last month, the FBI arrested 46 corrections officers in Georgia for drug trafficking and smuggling contraband inside prisons. They have yet to enter pleas.
In 2014, Sheriff Jamey Noel took over a jail in Clark County, Indiana, that was riddled with corruption and violence.
“The inmates were running the jail,” Noel said. “I had parents blowing my phone up or emailing me, saying ‘Hey, I’m sorry my son got arrested,’ basically, ‘but he’s getting more drugs in jail then he could get out on the street.'”
So he decided to team up with A&E and allowed hundreds of their reality show cameras to be posted all over the facility to uncover it all. Noel said he worried he was putting his career on the line by allowing cameras into the jail.
“There’s a lot of sleepless nights,” he said. “But I’ll be honest with you, what we learned far outweighed my personal reputation.”
Dan Abrams, ABC News’ chief legal correspondent, hosts the reunion show.
“This was the perfect jail to do something like this at,” Abrams said. “It had corruption, it had problems. It was known for being a violent, sort of terrible place, and this new sheriff comes in and says, ‘I’ve got to figure out how to fix it.'”
No one on the inside, neither the guards nor their fellow inmates, knew that Zac, Barbra and the other participants were actually part of the reality show. Only Sheriff Noel and his chief deputy knew the truth. Abrams said there were real safety risks.
“If I were the sheriff, I would have been really nervous,” he said. “There were cameras everywhere. In theory they were monitoring as much as possible.”
The participants were sent into the jail only armed with surveillance cameras, a cover story and a safe word if they want to be pulled out before the 60 days are over.
“We spent a lot of time making sure they knew what their cover story was, what their cover name was,” Noel said.
All seven participants went to “jail bootcamp” to learn how to deal with the unwritten rules of life on the inside, but the training did little to prepare Barbra for the harsh reality of jail life.
“I’ve only been in jail for two days and it feels like I have been here for two months,” she said.
With his military experience, Zac was able to adjust more easily.
“The nice thing about being in jail as opposed to being in Afghanistan is in Afghanistan, you don’t know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are,” he said. “In jail, you kind of just have to treat everybody like a bad guy.”
During his stint, Zac was sent to C-Pod, otherwise known as the most drug-ridden part of the jail. He learned the early warning signs that a fight was about to break out when a prisoner started casually putting on his shoes.
“It’s called ‘lacing up,'” Noel said. “They’re going to put on their shoes on to fight.”
Zac stayed in his bunk, out of the fray, which he said was difficult for him.
“I had to keep myself in check,” he said. “I cannot get involved in this situation. I don’t want to jeopardize the program, didn’t want to blow my cover.”
After the fight, the inmates in C-Pod were unwilling to cooperate with officers to explain what happened. This no-snitch culture is part of the reason why Noel decided to open his prison up to A&E’s cameras.
“The inmates don’t like to talk to me, the corrections officers either,” he said. “They immediately get branded as a snitch.”
But the fake inmates have no qualms about sharing information with the sheriff.
“They like to make their drugs in jail,” Barbra said. “They basically take their drugs that they’re supposed to be taking during the medication time. They combine the medications together, they’ll roll it up in tampon papers and smoke it or they will melt down jolly ranchers and mix it with jolly ranchers and suck on it.”
Close to 47 percent of prisoners are locked up for drug offenses, according to OIG. The reality show cameras are helping get the drugs out of the jail.
They were sneaking drugs in with new arrests, they were using their body cavities, several arrests were made in this program after that,” Noel said.
But all that surveillance doesn’t necessary mean a jail is safe. One of the show’s participants was punched in the face during filming — all of which was caught on camera.
Zac, Barbra and the other participants were compensated for the time they spent in jail, and yet not all of them make it through the 60 days, though Zac and Barbra both managed to tough it out.
“The sleeping conditions are extremely difficult,” Barbra said. “You get a mat and you’re on a metal bunk. Everything’s very dirty. It’s extremely cold in there. The first few weeks were absolutely miserable.”
“60 Days In” may be a reality show but the sheriff says he’s implemented real changes, including firing some corrections officers — “we had several that actually quit,” he said. “It was touch, it’s not easy.”
In the end, Barbra said the experience made her a better person.
“I’m so grateful for life,” she said. “I have this new awesome vision for myself and for my family…. I’m so open to everyone now. I’m kind. I’m not as opinionated as I used to be. I’m all here.”