Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman takes questions from reporters in front of the jail in July, 2021. (Nick Chrastil/The Lens)

Civil rights attorneys representing people incarcerated in the New Orleans jail say that they were misled by the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office regarding a Netflix reality show that was filmed at the facility and is set to air later this month. 

The attorneys, who are part of a longstanding federal consent decree — meant to improve conditions at the jail and bring it into compliance with the U.S. Constitution — claim Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s office twice informed them that the show had been “shut down and terminated” after they raised concerns about it last year. 

But the show, “Jailbirds: New Orleans,” which features female detainees incarcerated in the Orleans Justice Center, is set to come out on Sept. 24. 

A previous iteration of the show was filmed in the Sacramento jail, where it faced criticism from defense attorneys and civil rights advocates. Detainees there claimed production crew staged incidents to heighten drama, guards let fights take place that wouldn’t have otherwise been allowed, and pretrial detainees were allowed to speak about their cases on camera without lawyers present. The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department was reimbursed by the production company over $40,000 for nearly 500 hours of overtime hours required to provide security for the filming of “Jailbirds.” 

Emily Washington, Deputy Director of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, which represents the plaintiff class of people incarcerated in the New Orleans jail in the consent decree litigation, said in a statement to The Lens that they had been under the impression that the new season would not be moving forward after discussions with the sheriff’s office over a year ago. 

“In early 2020, after we raised concerns about the significant risks for harm posed to our clients by filming a reality show in the Orleans Justice Center, OPSO twice represented that production of the show had been shut down and terminated,” the statement read. “In a jail that remains out of compliance with significant portions of the Consent Judgment, including those directly related to ensuring the health and safety of people imprisoned at the facility, OPSO should not be diverting its time, resources, and attention. OPSO’s choice to do so is the latest example of the agency’s unfocused and distorted priorities which continue to allow dangerous, unconstitutional conditions to persist.”

The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office did not respond to questions regarding conversations with MacArthur, nor whether the other parties involved in the consent decree or the federal judge who oversees the litigation, Lance Africk, had been consulted regarding the production of the show.

Blake Arcuri, an attorney for OPSO, said that the filming was “not related to the Consent Judgment in any way.”

The agreement was approved in 2013 as part of a class-action lawsuit against OPSO following a finding by the United States Department of Justice in 2009 that the facility was not adequately protecting those incarcerated from violence inflicted by other detainees and jail staff, and mental and medical healthcare in the facility did not meet constitutional standards. 

In recent years, one of the big issues facing the facility has been insufficient staffing. 

A monitor’s report in January of 2020 — around the time the show was being filmed —  noted that even while the sheriff’s office regularly pays deputies to work overtime, “frequently, there are housing units and control rooms with no assigned staffing.”

“Further, almost daily, assigned staff leave housing units and control pods unattended for meal breaks and other duties,” ther report reads.

In its statement, OPSO said that the production of the show did not impact the day to day functioning of the facility, and that the production company, 44 Blue Productions, was required to hire off-duty sheriff’s deputies to provide security for the crew.

“This filming had no impact on the jail’s daily staffing levels in the pods or in other places around the OJC,” the statement read. “Production crews were closely monitored throughout this process to ensure that they were upholding all terms of our agreement.”

‘Feuds, flirtations and toilet talk’

It is unclear when exactly the show was filmed. OPSO said in a statement that the production took place in the beginning of 2020 and lasted four days, but would not respond to repeated requests for the exact filming dates. 

A trailer for the new season of the show features footage of female detainees appearing in on-camera interviews, interacting with OPSO staff, and socializing with one another, as well as with male detainees housed in a separate portion of the  jail by utilizing the plumbing infrastructure to communicate.  

“Feuds, flirtations, and toilet talk go down among the incarcerated women at the Orleans Justice Center in New Orleans in this gritty reality series,” says the synopsis on Netflix

The sheriff’s office said that they decided to move forward with the show, ​​”to provide the public with a glimpse at the reality of daily life within the walls of our facility and the criminal justice system overall.” 

“By sharing their stories and presenting the work of some of our deputies within the pods of the Orleans Justice Center, our expectation was that messages could be shared to show the common struggles that inmates face in their individual journeys to rebuild their lives and deter others from going down the same path of incarceration,” the statement read.

But defense attorneys and criminal justice reform groups are also criticizing the underlying premise of the show. In a joint statement on Thursday, the Orleans Public Defenders, along with the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, Voice of the Experienced, and the Promise of Justice Initiative, said that they were “appalled”  to learn of the show. 

“Mass incarceration has innumerable and detrimental impacts to individuals, their families and the community,” the statement read. “It should not be misconstrued as some form of summer camp for adults, or used for punchlines, sound bites, or exploitation of vulnerable people. That reality TV is a priority speaks volumes.”

They called it an “abhorrent misuse of the Sheriff’s time.” 

44 Blue Productions is also the producer of the reality show “Nightwatch,” which follows EMS workers and is currently filming in New Orleans. Nightwatch has been the subject of controversy recently, with critics alleging that their presence during emergency situations can be an invasion of privacy for patients and impact the quality of care that they are receiving. Both New Orleans EMS and 44 Blue have denied those accusations.

Rasha Drachkovitch, co-CEO of 44 Blue Productions, did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...