‘Damn near staged:’ Sacramento sheriff stood by while ‘Jailbirds’ amped up the drama

During filming of the Netflix show “Jailbirds,” Sacramento County sheriff’s deputies watched fights break out, allowed inmates to incriminate themselves without their attorneys present and demanded editorial control of the reality series, even as the show’s producers amped up the drama in the name of entertainment.

A Sacramento Bee review of sheriff’s department documents and multiple interviews with inmates who appear in “Jailbirds” raise questions about the role the department had in allowing violence to boil over during the production inside its jail. At least four inmates who appeared on the show told The Bee that deputies closely watched the producers film their scenes.

One inmate said a scene in the show was staged for dramatic effect. Another said producers told her she would not get punished for violations caught on camera. Yet another said a fight scene was “damn near staged.” The sheriff’s office was reimbursed by the producers more than $42,000 to pay for nearly 500 hours of overtime during filming last year.

Attorneys at the Sacramento County Public Defender’s Office, which represented several of the inmates on the show, said they weren’t notified that the producers were filming. The attorneys were alarmed because it could jeopardize their clients’ cases, raising fundamental questions about fairness to the inmates who had not yet been convicted.

“Jailbirds” began airing in May on Netflix, and includes six episodes mainly featuring female inmates inside the downtown Sacramento lockup and the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center in Elk Grove. Netflix promotes the show by saying it’s about incarcerated women who “fight the power and one another as they try to make the best of life – and love – on the inside.”

The show, produced by Burbank-based 44 Blue Productions, is the latest reality television program to enter a national debate over the ethics of producers filming police and suspects for others’ entertainment. Similar reality TV shows, such as the long-running series “Cops,” have been under scrutiny as critics accuse them of exploiting poor people, drug addicts and the mentally ill in the name of ratings – while also presenting a sanitized view of law enforcement that shows officers only in the most favorable light.

Although “Jailbirds” falls under the category of “reality” TV, and the production company bills itself as a leader in “non-fiction and unscripted content,” some of the scenes appear to have been orchestrated or edited to heighten the drama, according to a review of the series and interviews with inmates who were on the show.

What’s more, the office of Sheriff Scott Jones, who manages the county jails, was allowed to review and approve “Jailbirds” footage before it made it to Netflix, according to a copy of the sheriff’s contract The Bee obtained through a public record’s request.

The contract says the sheriff’s office had up to 20 business days to review both the “rough cut” and the “fine cut” edited footage to ensure it didn’t “contain content that would expose confidential enforcement protocols ... or jeopardize the safety and security of county personnel and or inmate/detainees.”


Why did we report this story?

The “Jailbirds” series on Netflix has brought new nationwide attention to Sacramento and its jails. All elected officials and public agencies deserve scrutiny to gauge whether taxpayer money is wasted and whether they are upholding the law. The public trust of our institutions is at stake. Reporters Ryan Sabalow and Molly Sullivan began watching the series and noticed a number of scenes that raised troubling questions about the show. We wanted to find out how this series got made, and how closely Netflix and the production company worked with the sheriff’s department.

Read more by clicking the arrow in the upper right.

How we reported the story

We began by watching all six “Jailbirds” episodes, documenting scene-by-scene every time something troubling was shown. We filed a request under the California Public Records Act for the contract the producers, 44 Blue Productions, signed with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department. We conducted numerous interviews.

Who did we speak to?

The Bee identified more than a dozen inmates who appeared on the show and tried to speak to almost all of them, using jail emails and visitations for those still in custody and public records and social media accounts for those who’ve since been released. Four of them agreed to speak with us. We also reached out multiple times to the show’s producers and Netflix to get answers to our questions. We’ve gotten no response. The sheriff’s office declined to answer our questions. The Bee also interviewed a half dozen experts on media ethics, inmate rights and reality TV shows, as well local defense attorneys and officials.

The contract also says the producers agreed to reimburse the county – $83 per hour per deputy; $96 per hour for a sergeant – if the production required “additional security” during filming. The sheriff’s office initially told The Bee last month that no money changed hands because of the production, but an invoice obtained by The Bee shows the producers reimbursed the sheriff’s office $42,211 for 482 hours of overtime between July and November 2018.

In response to a list of questions sent to the sheriff’s office, spokeswoman Sgt. Tess Deterding said in an email to The Bee: “We have provided a lot of information related to Jailbirds prior to, and after its airing. We are not inclined to answer any additional questions.”

The Bee made repeated unsuccessful requests for interviews to the producers of “Jailbirds” for this story. The producers didn’t respond to lists of questions emailed to their media relations manager. Netflix didn’t respond to messages sent through its website to its media relations department.

But in a publicity interview last month, “Jailbirds’” executive producer made it clear that the sheriff’s office worked side by side with his production crew.

“Obviously an officer’s with us at all times,” Jailbirds’ executive producer Rasha Drachkovitch said last month in an interview with “Decider,” an entertainment website devoted to online streaming films and shows. “They want to make sure nothing’s being violated, anything they’re not supposed to have. Obviously (inmates) wouldn’t be allowed to consume (anything illegal) so it’s destroyed immediately. I think the biggest concern for the facility is to make sure, they want to keep the peace.”

‘Damn near staged’

Things certainly weren’t peaceful at the end of Episode 5. A brawl breaks out on camera.

With sheriff’s deputies closely watching, the drama revolved around “Toilet Talking” – the cringe-inducing way inmates use the toilets in their cells to pass contraband and talk to inmates on different floors through the jail’s antiquated plumbing system.

In one scene leading up to the fight, an inmate, David “Squeeze” Matlock, listens through the toilet bowl as Najla “Noonie” Jones describes an ongoing feud with women on her floor.

“I might send something down there through the toilet bowl,” Matlock says, implying he’s going to send a weapon through the plumbing. He adds: “F--- all them. Green Light,” which the audience is told is jailhouse lingo for attacking someone.

Moments later in the show, Jones sits at a table inside a common area, the cameras roll auspiciously for an interview with Jones. Smartt walks up, swinging haymakers.

A brawl breaks out among several women.

Ebony Smartt, one of the women who has a beef with Jones, later says she knew Jones put a “Green Light” on her and that Jones might be armed with a weapon.

In subsequent scenes rehashing the brawl, a sheriff’s deputy is seen sitting directly behind the production crew as the action unfolds.

Katrina Haslam, a 25-year-old inmate seen being reprimanded on the show for her role in the brawl, told The Bee, all the cell doors popped open at the same time – something she alleges rarely happens.

“I feel like that was damn near staged because Noonie (Jones) had just got jumped in the shower two days prior to this,” Haslam, who has since been released, said in an interview with The Bee. “Knowing that we all don’t like each other, why would you pop our doors? ... It was a fight waiting to happen. It was asked to happen basically.”

This sort of drama makes for compelling reality TV on the heels of Netflix’s blockbuster “Orange is the New Black,” a fictional female prison drama-comedy.

But critics of shows in the “Jailbirds” genre question the ethics of producers filming inmates making contraband in their cells, bickering and brawling or outright incriminating themselves on camera as they face potentially years of their lives behind bars from their pending criminal cases.

“I get that everybody knows that reality shows aren’t real,” said Dan Taberski, a former reality show producer and executive producer of “Running from Cops,” a podcast on law enforcement reality shows. “But this isn’t about duck hunters. This isn’t about housewives. This isn’t about Kardashians. This is about criminal justice. And it’s real. And you have to treat this s--- seriously.

The prospect of filming sparking violence especially troubles Kristie Bunton, dean of the Bob Schieffer College of Communication at Texas Christian University and an expert on mass media ethics.

“We have a sheriff’s department that appears to be more interested in helping to create dramatic circumstances or to stand back and watch … potentially unsafe circumstances unfold,” Bunton said. “That just seems to me to be an abrogation of their responsibility. They have a sworn duty to protect all those inmates, not to use them for the purposes of somebody’s entertainment. Wow. That just seems pretty unbelievable.”

In response to the proliferation of law enforcement reality shows, at least seven communities across the U.S. have recently pushed back by canceling contracts with reality TV producers or severely restricting the shows from filming in their jurisdictions.

In previous years, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department has appeared on “Cops,” and it allowed the producer who filmed “Jailbirds” to shoots scenes for the popular MSNBC show “Lockup” inside the jail.

The county recently announced that this year alone, it has to pay $21.7 million for more jail staff and building upgrades to satisfy lawsuits alleging inhumane conditions at lockups overseen by Sheriff Jones.

Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna, a longtime critic of Jones, told The Bee he’s leaning toward banning reality TV programs filming cops in the county’s jurisdiction, especially in light of the possibility that the sheriff’s office allowed violence to break out on camera.

“That should be troubling for everyone,” Serna said. “This seems to be an effort to go out of your way to literally broadcast to the world that Sacramento County has a correctional system that is deplorable.”

‘They told me to do that’

The fight is not the only part of the show that raises concerns about how much the sheriff’s department allowed troubling activity to unfold, and how much the production company encouraged the action or tacitly sanctioned it.

A scene-by-scene review of the show by The Bee reveals numerous examples of inmates apparently violating jailhouse policies while the cameras roll.

Those scenes included inmates using long strings to pass messages and snacks through the toilets, inmates making and drinking prescription drug cocktails, brewing alcoholic “pruno,” and crafting a sex toy. One woman is filmed as she smuggles a homemade ring through security as she’s led in to be married to another female inmate in a courthouse service.

In at least two of the incidents, the inmates are shown being reprimanded. The audience is told they will lose privileges for what they’re caught doing on film.

But four of the inmates featured on the show, all of whom signed release forms allowing the production firm to use their footage, said deputies gave them a free pass for what they demonstrated for producers.

Daniel “Dolla” Carter, 22, one of a trio of “ladies’ man” characters on the show seen having several “toilet talking” relationships with female inmates, said he knew he wouldn’t get in trouble for anything he did on camera, given that deputies were closely watching the film crew.

“They were bringing in cameras to where we stay, where we live, where we, you know, conduct our home,” he said in an interview after being released. “There shouldn’t be no discipline ... Nah, we didn’t get in trouble for that. I didn’t get in trouble for that.”

He said at least one of the scenes – when he and another inmate walk into a recreation yard and find notes written on the walls by Haslam – was staged for dramatic effect.

Haslam said she wrote the notes after she was moved to a different part of the jail, where she was cut off from communicating with Carter.

Carter said producers told him to go to the recreation yard for a “surprise.”

“It was written ...They told me to do that,” Carter said.

Megan “Monster” Hawkins, a 29-year-old inmate who appears to lose privileges on the show after she’s caught with jailhouse “pruno” in her cell, said nothing was outright staged.

“I can tell you that everything is 100 percent real,” said Hawkins. She has “Monster” tattooed above her eyebrow, her tongue is split down the middle and has become something of an internet and local celebrity since appearing on the show.

But her former cellmate, “Noonie” Jones, said the scene in which she and Hawkins are shown getting in trouble for pruno was from a violation that wasn’t caught on camera. Instead, she said, producers edited the footage of Jones making the jailhouse hooch and later in the episode showed footage from a discipline hearing about an earlier violation.

Hawkins said that when the producers first approached her, she told them she was worried about getting in trouble if she was caught on camera doing something that violated jail rules.

‘They were like, ‘No, but we just need to get it, to show that it’s done,’ ” she said. “So, um, we were told that we would not get in trouble.”

Though producer Drachkovitch said camera crews were closely supervised by jail staff, Haslam said she and her cellmate, Blanca Quintero, were filmed making a pink cocktail of prescription medications without any deputies within earshot.

“There was just a camera guy in the cell with us,” Haslam said. “We was just doing it and they came by. After we were done making it, they just went and did something else with another inmate and we just went about our own business.”

She said she was never disciplined for making the contraband.

In his interview with “Decider,” producer Drachkovitch said the sheriff’s department chose to enforce rules strategically while the producers filmed.

“Whether they’re toilet talking or fishing or the occasional pruno, it’s not exactly against policy,” Drachkovitch said.

“It’s the balance, maybe degrees. Is this really worth upsetting things as opposed to finding out about a hit or gang activity?” Drachkovitch told the publication. “It’s pretty well scrutinized, but that’s what was so great about working with Sac County Jail is they’re really transparent and open to showing how things work there.”

The sheriff’s office recently denied The Bee’s request to tour the jail.

Richard Wald, a former executive at ABC News and NBC News who’s now a journalism professor at Columbia University, said staging scenes for dramatic effect would never fly at any reputable news organization, though it’s the norm for reality television.

“People claim the privileges of a news organization without going through the disciplines of a news organization,” Wald said. “You’ll find every news organization in America has some kind of ruling against staging. … It’s just a no-goer.”

‘That’s what sells’

Critics said staging scenes and selective editing misleads audiences about what life is like in jail, in direct contradiction to what the sheriff’s officials said their motivations after the show first aired on Netflix.

“The idea was to showcase and highlight the conditions in which deputies work in the jail,” sheriff’s spokeswoman Deterding told The Bee last month.

She said the show “really started to look like an opportunity to showcase the services we have going on,” such as the jail’s vocational and educational programs and other resources for inmates such as drug treatment.

Yet very few of those sorts of beneficial programs appeared on the show.

Instead, the producers sought drama and encouraged inmates to behave like TV characters, said Kenneth Rosenfeld, a Sacramento defense attorney who watched all six episodes.

“What makes TV? Setting up fights, getting drug rings together, possibly getting a female gang together,” Rosenfeld said. “That’s what sells, and that’s what people are tuning in to watch. Nobody is watching to see two women decide to get on the Better Business Bureau.”

Critics said people also behave differently when the reality TV cameras are rolling – something that could lead to tension or violence when an inmate’s “street cred” is on the line and they know a national audience is watching.

Haslam, the inmate reprimanded on camera for her role in the fight, said she felt the inmates acted more aggressively to each other when the producers were filming.

“Well, I feel like the cameras did cause some tension,” she said. “Like people act tougher than what they really would.”

Scrutinizing ‘Cops’

Reality TV shows focused on law enforcement have come under increasing scrutiny in recent months. Last year, Spokane, Wash. placed restrictions on reality cops shows after receiving complaints the show “Live PD” was damaging the region’s reputation and exploiting disadvantaged people.

More recently, a popular new investigative podcast “Running from Cops” focuses on the three decade-run of “Cops,” the longest running reality show on television. The podcast questioned how producers obtain consent from suspects and whether the show actually depicted “reality.” The podcast describes how the agencies featured in “Cops” sign contracts similar to the one Jones, the Sacramento County sheriff, signed for “Jailbirds,” giving the agencies veto power over what gets aired.

Taberski, the podcast’s executive producer, said his team tracked down 11 criminal suspects featured on “Cops.” Ten of them said law enforcement coerced them to sign a release form to appear on camera, or they were too intoxicated to give consent, Taberski said. The producers of “Cops” dispute the allegations.

In an interview, Taberski described finding an especially troubling example of how footage is manipulated for dramatic effect and to show officers in the most favorable light. A two-minute scene that appeared on a “Cops” episode showed an officer in Georgia stopping a young man and woman in their car.

On the show, the officer tests a small amount of drugs that he quickly finds during a search, confirming in moments that it has tested positive for cocaine. Both suspects are arrested.

But that scene was vastly different from the 45 minutes of unedited footage that “Running from Cops” obtained from the suspects’ criminal case, Taberski said.

The footage, Taberski said, showed the suspects seemingly relaxed at first as the officer spends 14 minutes searching their car before finding the alleged drugs. The officer goes back to test the substance twice, getting negative results both times. With his back to the camera, he tests the alleged drugs a third time, and it comes back positive, Taberski said.

“In the worst case scenario, what it shows is the officer’s planting evidence to make these kids look like they had cocaine, but they didn’t,” Taberski said. “Best case scenario, this officer messed up, didn’t know how to do the test, and the show “Cops” edited it in a way – not just make a simpler story, not just make it a shorter story – but to make it a completely different story than what … actually happened.”

Taberski said his producers learned the officer in that segment had at that point been riding with the production company for days and had nothing interesting to show for it.

“None of it would have happened if this cop did not have cameras following him to make a show that’s billed as entertainment,” Taberski said.

“Cops” producers say nothing on their show is staged, but Taberski said the likelihood of officers escalating the dramatic tension because the cameras are rolling – as well as law enforcement agencies having final say over anything that gets aired and the exploitative nature of the show’s subject matter – should prompt cities and county governments to rethink allowing police reality shows to film in their jurisdictions.

‘Incriminating evidence’

In the fourth episode of “Jailbirds,” Rebecca “Baby Girl” Temme makes a stunning confession as she discusses her pending case, all but putting herself at the scene of the crime. Temme, along with her co-defendant, James Martin Baca, were accused of murdering Temme’s wife, Leonora Montoya, on March 19, 2017.

Montoya, 53, was found dead of a gunshot wound to her head at the Surf Motel in North Sacramento. Deputies found the body after responding to a report of a gunshot. Temme and Baca were later arrested in Redwood City after a car and foot chase.

On the show, Temme describes the case in detail, though she stops short of saying she killed her wife.

“The victim happened to be my wife,” she tells producers. “She was a good person. She just made some f---ed up decisions. Prior to that, me and her had a really big falling out. She was a very outspoken person. That was her downfall. She got shot execution style…. I can’t really discuss it because I’m still fighting it. I regret it. I feel like you can never forget someone’s face when you see them die. And I’ll never forget her face. Like I’ll never forget the look she gave me.”

A jury found Temme guilty of murder last month. She remains in custody at the county’s Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center and is awaiting her sentencing. She didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Prosecutors didn’t introduce “Jailbirds” footage into evidence during Temme’s trial, and a spokeswoman for the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office said she couldn’t comment on whether it would be played at her sentencing on Friday.

Like many of the inmates on the show, Temme was represented by the Sacramento Public Defender’s Office, the agency tasked with providing constitutionally required legal representation for suspects too poor to afford an attorney.

“We recommend that people not give up their constitutional right to remain silent,” the public defender’s office said in a written statement. “Beyond this, we shouldn’t comment further due to the likelihood that this will become an issue before the courts.”

Rosenfeld, the Sacramento defense attorney, watched Temme’s scene and winced.

“She might as well have just said, ‘I killed her, ‘” he said.

The public defender’s office has good reason to be alarmed, Rosenfeld said: Any “Jailbirds” footage could be shown to a judge and a jury.

“It’s incriminating evidence against themselves,” Rosenfeld said. “You can motion the court and say, ‘Your Honor, I think it would be unfair,’ and the court is going to laugh at you and say, ‘Your client should have thought about that before she started talking about it… Hope she enjoys her short-lived fame because all of the money (she makes) is going to go to the victim fund anyways.’”

The problem with a show such as “Jailbirds,” he said, is that many of the inmates hope to use their reality television fame to make some quick cash, but he said California has strict laws prohibiting inmates from profiting off their crimes.

“It’s setting somebody up who is probably weak minded to some degree to begin with because of the circumstances that they’re in, and you give them the idea they’re going to have a taste of fortune and fame and be the next Kardashian, and they’re going to do things and act in ways that are really going to be fodder and more evidence for a DA at a closing argument,” Rosenfeld said. “Our job is hard enough already. We don’t need these wannabe TV stars to make it harder.”

Some of the inmates, such as “Dolla” Carter, the toilet-talking ladies’ man, and “Monster” Hawkins, the inmate who was busted for making pruno, said they would like to use their fame to better themselves.

Carter said he has some “opportunities” and is working on making a movie about life in Sacramento.

“I’m turning any negative aspect into a positive, and I’m gonna try to run with it,” he said.

Hawkins hopes to land on another reality show.

“I’ve got some opportunities of things, you know, that are coming my way that I’m excited for,” she said.

But being famous spectacularly backfired in Hawkins’ case. The Elk Grove Police Department arrested her last month, alleging that Hawkins tried to open accounts at a bank on Bruceville Road using fraudulent identification. Police said a witness recognized her from the TV show and notified authorities.

Hawkins said the experience taught her that her new-found fame will keep her in line.

“I can’t get in trouble because I can’t go anywhere without people noticing me,” she said. “But that’s a good thing.”

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Ryan Sabalow covers environment, general news and enterprise and investigative stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. Before joining The Bee in 2015, he was a reporter at The Auburn Journal, The Redding Record Searchlight and The Indianapolis Star.
Molly Sullivan covers crime, breaking news and police accountability for The Bee. She grew up in Northern California and is an alumna of Chico State.