Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman. (Charles Maldonado/The Lens)

When Netflix announced last month that a new season of their “gritty” reality series “Jailbirds” would feature female detainees in the New Orleans jail, local criminal justice reform groups and attorneys responded with strong criticism for Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman for letting it happen. 

They said it showed the Sheriff’s distorted priorities in running a jail that has been under a federal consent decree for eight years due to violence, inadequate medical and mental health care and insufficient staffing. 

And they pointed to a previous iteration of the show filmed at the Sacramento jail several years ago, where there were allegations from lawyers and detainees that the shows producers and jail deputies instigated conflict for the camera by allowing fights to take place, informing detainees that they wouldn’t get in trouble for rule violations caught on film, and by letting them incriminate themselves in their pending criminal trials without a lawyer present.

But the Sheriff’s Office seemed to brush off those criticisms last month — prior to the show’s release — saying that Gusman stood by the decision to allow production of the show, and that it didn’t interfere with the functioning of the jail. 

In a statement, the Sheriff’s Office said that Gusman and the production company, 44 Blue Productions, “agreed to strict legal terms and conditions to ensure that production crews did not interfere with the well-being of our staff and inmates,” and that the “production crews were closely monitored throughout this process to ensure that they were upholding all terms of our agreement.” 

As for the consent decree, Blake Arcuri, a lawyer for the Sheriff’s Office, told The Lens that the show was “not related to the Consent Judgment in any way.”

But civil rights attorneys representing the plaintiffs’ class of jail detainees in the consent decree were concerned about the show. Last month, Emily Washington with the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center told The Lens that after she raised those concerns to OPSO in early 2020, they “twice represented that production of the show had been shut down and terminated.” 

And emails obtained by the Lens between the Sheriff’s Office and producers on the show reveal that Sheriff’s Office officials, including Arcuri, had reservations about the project before production started in early 2020, and then abruptly halted filming of the show on March 5 to the frustration of the production company.  

In a statement on Tuesday in response to questions from The Lens, OPSO acknowledged that the filming had been halted when they determined that the production company had violated their agreement. 

​​“The Sheriff’s Office was reassured by the producers that this series, unlike the Sacramento one, would show women inmates who were trying to positively turn their lives around,” the statement said. “We understood that no incidents would be staged or encouraged by the film crew. Filming was halted when these main agreements were violated in our opinion.”

Later, after viewing a rough cut of one episode of the show, Arcuri accused the production company in an email of violating the agreement with OPSO by failing to report drug use that they filmed taking place in the jail, and also of editing the footage to make it seem like detainees were able to “dodge” the jail staff while crushing and snorting medication.

In the email to a number of 44 Blue staff members in May 2020,  Arcuri said that he had “had grave concerns about this show because I knew that this type of behavior would ultimately be the topic.” 

He wrote that 44 Blue Productions representatives — including radio host, political consultant and former New Orleans City Councilman Oliver Thomas, who is running for the District E council seat in the fall election — had assured Sheriff’s Office staff that the New Orleans season would not be a repeat of Sacramento. 

“Despite that, Oliver [Thomas] and Elton [Jones] repeatedly represented that this ‘would be different’ than Sacramento, with acknowledgment of the impact of the federal litigation in which we are continuously monitored,” he wrote. “It turns out my concerns were correct, given this episiode’s content and the repeated requests for surveillance footage of altercations. As I suspected, it seems this is exactly like Sacramento.”

The new season, which is only 3 episodes long, premiered on Sept. 24. It contains footage of detainees trading their medication for snacks and other items, hiding in each other’s cells, and discussing their cases. It does not appear that the specific scene that Arcuri objected to in May was included in the episodes that ultimately aired. 

Rasha Drachkovitch, co-CEO of 44 Blue productions, did not respond to multiple questions from The Lens. 

Filming halted in March

Even before filming began early last year, Gusman was reticent about hosting “Jailbirds” in the facility, emails show. On January 5, 2020, Arcuri wrote to Elton Jones, an executive producer on the show, telling him that “the Sheriff has some concerns about this project given a recent review of last season.” 

“There will be no filming or cameras brought into the facility until we are able to discuss and decide whether this will move forward,” Arcuri wrote. 

But shortly after, film crews were let inside to shoot a casting tape, which was shared with the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office on February 5. 

Emails show that the initial filming schedule for “Jailbirds: New Orleans” was supposed to start in late February and take place in five blocks — most of which were several weeks each — ending in early July 2020. But the production company was kicked out of the jail before they could even finish the first block. 

Neither the Sheriff’s Office nor representatives of 44 Blue responded to questions regarding what exactly led to the film crew being kicked out of the jail in early March, and it is unclear based on the emails obtained by The Lens. But the decision by OPSO was met with apparent shock and frustration by the producers.  And while it happened just days before the first COVID-19 case was reported in Louisiana, the virus does not appear to have been the reason. 

On March 5, 2020 Arcuri emailed Jones and, referencing a prior conversation, informed him that filming on the project would be  “halted effective Immediately” and that film crews would no longer be allowed in the Orleans Justice Center. 

Though Arcuri later told The Lens that the filming of “Jailbirds” had nothing to do with the consent decree, Jones’ response references the involvement of a “federal judge.” The consent decree is overseen by U.S. District Court Judge Lance Africk.

Jones responded that evening saying that they believed  “incorrect information was given to the federal judge” and  requested “the opportunity to address those concerns directly with the federal judge and/or any other parties ASAP.”

“It’s imperative that we resolve this matter as quickly as possible, as I’m sure you can understand — based on the production time, resources and investment,” Jones wrote. “Can you please provide contact info for the federal judge in question? Lastly, we have been filming for the past five days with zero problems. OJC and its staff have been extremely professional in every aspect of the production operation.”

The Lens asked officials with the Sheriff’s Office about the reference to a judge, but they did not respond. Judge Africk declined to comment. 

Jones emailed Arcuri again less than an hour later to relay comments regarding the decision from Drachkovitch, who defended the company’s reputation, said that it would never violate the trust of the Sheriff’s Office, and stressed that they had “millions” invested in the series. 

“We have a crew expecting to film tomorrow — if they don’t, we’re burning through our budget,” Jones quoted Drachkovitch as saying, who also referenced “incorrect information” given to a federal judge, and said he would fly with his legal team to New Orleans to meet with “all parties.” 

Minutes later, the company’s local consultant, Oliver Thomas, emailed Jones, Arcuri, and several others. 

Thomas, who served on the City Council from 1994 to 2007 before resigning and pleading guilty to taking bribes, wrote in the email that the decision to kick 44 Blue out of the jail the “strangest move” he’d ever seen, and vouched for the integrity of the production company.

“I’ve been around a long time watched a lot of maneuvering socially and politically and this is strangest move I’ve ever Seen,” Thomas wrote. “The Men and Women at 44Blue are some of the honorable I’ve ever met. They love our city, they want to invest even more, and they gave their word to the Sheriff … What happened to justice? Facing your accuser? Innocent before proven guilty? Why don’t these things matter?”

It is unclear what took place following the email exchange. OPSO officials did not respond to specific questions from The Lens about any potential negotiations with the 44 Blue legal team, but confirmed that no filming took place inside the jail after March 5. 

In October 2020, after Gusman had already reviewed several episodes of the show, Thomas again attempted to restart production, sending over COVID-19 guidance that he said “follows the recommendations of the experts, protects your interests and keeps the production staff safe as well.”

“Please review and let me know when we can start discussions about completing this Project,” Thomas wrote.  

OPSO did not respond to questions about whether or not any discussions took place following the email.

Advocacy organizations — including the ACLU of Louisiana, the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, Voice of the Experienced, and the Orleans Public Defenders —  have called on the New Orleans City Council to hold a public hearing on the production of the show.

Nicholas 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...