Doing time in 'Lockup,' risk is never on the lamChances are, field crews working on most unscripted programs don't continually put their lives — or their subjects' — in as much danger as the people behind MSNBC's documentary series "Lockup."
The series, which returns at 11 p.m. Sept. 7 with new episodes, follows inmates in maximum-security prisons around the country.
"This is not a picnic; it's a serious place with dangerous people," says Rasha Drachkovitch, co-founder of "Lockup" production company 44 Blue Prods. with his wife, Stephanie.
The crew is frequently subjected to intense verbal intimidation from inmates, and one camera operator was shot when a bullet fired by a prison SWAT team member ricocheted in a firing range.
And the prisoners themselves aren't immune from one another. One interviewee was stabbed 22 times by gang members, afraid he had spilled more than he actually had.
"It gives you a reality check," Drachkovitch says. "Ninety percent of what we do is safe and pretty straightforward, but the 10% that isn't shocks us back into, 'Wow, we're in this extreme environment with people who have killed and done bad things.' "
In past seasons, each episode of "Lockup" focused on a different prison; this season, the show will follow inmates at California's San Quentin throughout six hourlong episodes. The longer stay has allowed the crew to delve further into the lives of the inmates and staff.
"We're calling this the real-life 'Oz' because it's the first time anybody (from a TV production) has spent this amount of time in a prison," Drachkovitch says, referring to the former HBO drama series.
In the beginning, prison wardens were hesitant to let the cameras inside, but they've become more open now that the show's been on the air for a few years. But there are ground rules, such as the ban from asking certain questions that might be too sensitive or shooting if a fight or hostage situation breaks out, mainly to ensure the TV crew's safety.
Drachkovitch wanted to interview Scott Peterson at San Quentin, but death row inmates are prohibited from talking on camera because their cases are most likely on appeal and "wrapped up in litigation," he says.
Producers hold sort of a "casting call" to determine which inmates will be featured on camera. Drachkovitch says they don't get a lot of interest from the inmates until cameras start rolling, and then more and more of them start making requests to be featured.
One inmate got so comfortable with the camera crews that he began confessing to other crimes. Tapes were subpoenaed and are now evidence in an ongoing trial.
Drachkovitch hasn't shied away from danger throughout his career. For various projects, he has gotten stoned by Palestinian protesters in the West Bank; shot at in Soweto, South Africa; chased down by the yakuza in Tokyo; and become the first Western producer to film inside Chinese and Russian maximum-security prisons.
Drachkovitch says he has nothing but admiration for the wardens, guards and correctional officers who deal with the maximum-security inmates on a day-to-day basis. "My hat's off to them," he says. "What they go through is amazing."