'60 Days In': TV Review

60 Days In Still - H 2016
Courtesy of A&E
Fascinating and frightening.

Seven people voluntarily enter a prison with the hopes of sparking reform in A&E's new reality series.

Over the years people have done almost everything for reality TV. They’ve sung their hearts out, eaten bugs, looked for romance, exposed their marriages and their parenting styles and pretended to be friends while tossing tables and throwing wine.

But A&E's 60 Days In takes what people are willing to do for the cameras to a whole other level. Seven people voluntarily enter Clark County Jail in Jeffersonville, Ind., and, as the title suggests, spend 60 days living in prison. Their reasons are, for the most part, noble. Maryum, a social worker, wants to better understand the gang violence she works so hard to prevent. Tami, a police officer, wants to know what it’s like for people after she arrests them. Isaiah wants to better relate to his older brother, who is currently in prison.

Sheriff Jamey Noel, who is overseeing the program, wants to put an end to the corruption, drugs and violence that permeate the prison. He believes that having these seven volunteers infiltrate the jail will give him the information he needs. “It’s almost impossible to get an unbiased look at what’s working and what’s not,” he says. Citing the fact that prisoners don’t want to be labeled snitches and some undercover cops refuse to turn on fellow officers, he needs “ordinary people who’ve never committed a crime to live in my facility for two months.” Only Noel and a handful of others know about the series; the inmates and the guards are all kept in the dark.

In watching the two episodes that make up the back-to-back premiere, I simply couldn’t wrap my head around why anyone would voluntarily do this. Zac, an ex-Marine who wants to become a DEA agent, leaves behind a newborn baby. Stay-at-home mom Barbra, who thinks it’s not fair that prisoners basically get the same benefits as her military husband, leaves her 4-year-old and 6-year-old sons. Barbra seems particularly naive and vulnerable. (And as a parent, I can’t tell you how stressful I found it that all the participants show their children and their spouses on camera.) Much is made of how dangerous the inmates are. So what’s going to happen to these participants and their families after the show airs? Maryum, who is the daughter of Muhammad Ali, is the only participant who changes her name while in prison. But anyone who watches the show will know that she is Ali’s daughter. I kind of feel like everyone is going to have to enter the Witness Protection Program after the premiere.

My maternal concerns aside, the show is eye-opening. Although it brings to life many prison cliches, this isn’t a Hollywood version of a prison; it’s an actual prison that’s completely overcrowded. You’ll feel claustrophobic just watching the small area the 40-plus inmates eat and sleep in. Absolutely nothing can happen in private. The violence is real and harrowing. The language would make the most profane cable show host blush. 

As with most reality shows, there’s also the bombastic participant who appears oblivious to what is actually going on around him. Robert, a school teacher, is like the Survivor contestant that says he’s going to win but gets voted out during the first tribal council. Robert has somehow convinced himself that going to prison is akin to hanging out at a country club. “My concern is that it will be too easy,” he says during the training for the program.

Ignoring everything he was told before entering prison, Robert swaggers into jail asking other inmates if they get the NFL Network so he can watch the upcoming Miami-New England game. He botches his cover story by not being consistent with the details. “Something is f—ing wrong with this dude,” an inmate says. Almost immediately, the prisoners peg Robert as being an undercover cop. This does not bode well for Robert. His whole predicament might even be amusing if the circumstances weren’t so dire.

Zac is having trouble on the other end of the spectrum. When he offers to help clean the cell, he befriends the prisoner in charge, known as the pod boss, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. He won’t fly under the radar if the pod boss favors him ,but it also means that he’s listened to his training and is doing all that was taught to him.

Can 60 Days In spark real prison reform? For what these seven people are putting themselves through, I certainly hope so.

Airs: Thursdays, 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. ET/PT, beginning March 17 (A&E)