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Encounters with Charles Manson, prison-yard fights, getting outfitted with flak jackets in the event of a stabbing — it’s all in a day’s work for the Lockup crew.
The documentary series — which takes viewers inside the world of maximum-security prisons around the country, putting a spotlight on some of the most dangerous criminals in the U.S. and abroad — has been filmed in more than 60 correctional centers and interviewed more than 2,000 inmates during its 16-year-run on MSNBC.
“This is a world seldom seen, and a side of life that most people never get to see,” says Rasha Drachkovitch, who co-founded Lockup production company 44 Blue Prods. with his wife, Stephanie. “We offer a startling, gritty access to that world. We’re proud of the series because it represents a lot of hard work and a lot of great storytelling.
Lockup is gearing up to end its run on the cable network later this year, but the show could live on in other ways, says Drachkovitch.
“Because we’ve been leaders in this space, new and exciting opportunities are on the horizon for 44 Blue to continue bringing viewers stories of the extreme human condition,” he said. “We’ve been approached to create content in the same genre that we’ve had such success pioneering, we look forward to telling more stories of life behind bars. Whether it be linear, international, VR or digital – exciting things to come.”
Added MSNBC vp Michael Rubin: “44 Blue has been a dream partner for over a decade, and rarely does a show make a mark on our pop culture, as Lockup has done … with little to no help from anyone! 44 Blue made it all happen. They crushed it for years. We’ll always be grateful for the work, and the excellence with which it was done.”
Ahead of the show’s final episodes for MSNBC, Drachkovitch talked to The Hollywood Reporter about filming inside the prisons, the precautions the crew must take and what it was like being around Manson.
The show has been on the air for 16 years. That’s impressive.
I’m proud of what we were able to accomplish. Every show has challenges. Lockup has real challenges to produce, and to be able to do it consistently [is an accomplishment].
Where did the idea for the show come from?
It’s kind of crazy. In 2000, when I got the call from MSNBC’s nonscripted department for [a show] for the weekend, they asked if we had anything edgy in the documentary space. We came up with this idea, sent it over, and it started airing Saturday nights at 10. It was edgy and popped huge numbers. When you think that we’ve been in over 60 facilities, interviewed over 2,000 inmates, been overseas, met Charles Manson, filmed at super max, women’s prisons, juvie prisons — it’s pretty amazing. It’s been a journey, to say the least.
How has it contributed to your company’s legacy?
It’s been a great calling card for our company. We get a lot of calls from other networks and even other producers saying, “This is my favorite show on TV.” I think MSNBC introduced binge watching [with Lockup]. They started airing marathons, around Thanksgiving or New Year’s, six to 10 episodes, and the numbers would be huge. People would tell us they’d watch eight straight hours of prison programming at Thanksgiving. I call it sticky programming. People would park themselves [in front of the TV and watch]. It’s addicting. I did a project with Dwayne Johnson, who told me he’d watch every weekend. How great is that? The Rock watches Lockup. Mark Wahlberg that he loved lockup. He said he couldn’t stop watching. It’s neat to see how it’s impacted people, and it’s really great for 44 Blue.
What was it like being around Charles Manson?
He’s in Corcoran, Calif., and in the sensitive-needs part of the prison, far away from the general population. When we met with the warden there, he said, “How’d you like to meet Charlie?” We were pretty fired up. Our curiosity meter was off the charts. It was the mid-2000s. And he plays playing guitar, poorly, and was down there with a rogues gallery of inmates next to him. We tried to make eye contact and get close to him. It was pretty strange, like a platform where you go and look at tigers and lions, and it’s just pretty bizarre viewing. He refused to be interviewed. He does very few interviews, his control thing. We were allowed to film B-roll of the [prison] yard. It’s eerie to think about the centralized area of evil. It’s not easy being a corrections officer. My hat off to them for what they have to do on a day-to-day basis and deal with the most difficult human beings on the planet. It’s not an easy chore.
How are overseas prisons different than U.S. prisons?
We were the first Western crew to film inside a Chinese prison. We were the first Western crew to go into a Russian maximum-security prison. We went inside a cell with 40 guys that was basically a cell built for four. It gives you a perspective on our criminal-justice system and our correction facilities. When we complain about overcrowding or underfunding or violence in prison, it’s nothing like the prisons we’ve been in [outside of the country]. We really are much more humane in how we deal with prisoners.
What kind of scary experiences have you had during filming?
Anytime you’re filming in a facility, where you’re coming in contact with inmates — especially on a yard, where you have a collection of as many as 50-100 inmates all doing long sentences — your sense just go into another level. When we were at Corcoran, with our crew in the middle of the yard, everybody was playing football, basketball, and all of a sudden, 15 feet from us, two inmates started to fight. And I noticed it first, and said, “That shouldn’t be going on, should it?” He yelled, “Everybody down.” The alarm went off. Because I was a witness, I had to testify on what I saw. It shows you that 90 percent of prison life is pretty mundane. Life can be: wake up, have your meals, exercise, go back to bed. But that other 10 percent is terrifying. When we’re embedded, our crew is there five to six months at a time, and it’s a very difficult environment to deal with. That was probably the worst experience, but I’d say we’re very fortunate to not have any injuries or anything worse happen.
What are some of the precautions you have had to take before filming?
A lot of people ask, “Why do the prisons let you in?” In many cases, they want to show off what they do. It’s a hard job, and seldom seen. The first thing we do is get the ground rules laid down — we have to sign a waiver that [for example] if we are held hostage, we can’t sue the state. In many cases, we get fitted for flak jackets, so if there is a stabbing, we have protection. We go through the whole hostage emergency plan. We end up just really adhering to the rules of each facility, and it’s really serious. That’s what makes the show so popular. In the realm of scripted reality today, a lot of shows have story lines and people can kind of tell they are manufactured. With Lockup, there are no second takes. It’s as real as reality TV gets, and that’s one of the factors that our audience appreciates.
Is it hard to get the prisoners to participate?
They go through three phases. There is a lot of skepticism. Prisons are like a city; they have neighborhoods and cliques, and there’s jealousy and love affairs, and all of a sudden a camera crew comes in and they wonder what we’re doing there. It’s the toughest phase for us because we have to earn the trust of both the staff and the inmates. The second phase is curiosity. What is this show? The third phase is that everybody wants to talk; everybody wants to tell their story. We’ve interviewed over 2,000 inmates; not all of them are right. We have to be really careful about being sure to get releases. We’re very conscious of victims’ rights and are very sensitive about telling stories where we can tell both sides.
How do you get the inmates to open up?
We have a fantastic field producer, Susan Carney, who has been in more prisons than anybody on the planet. She has an amazing way of disarming people she interviews. She can be sitting across from a stone-cold killer, and through her style of interviewing, she can get them to open up and in some cases open up about other crimes they’ve done. When you have to much monotony year after year, decade after decade, sitting in a cell isolated from the world, and someone comes in and starts to ask questions — there are amazing stories you get. And in some cases things do go negative. Some criminals are incredibly manipulative. They use the situation to try, through code during the interview, get out information; we have to be really careful about that. We don’t want the show to be used as a vehicle. We’ve had some get downright angry and threaten the crew; those interviews usually get cut off pretty quickly. There are the monsters, the real hard-core criminals, that we do feature; the other part of the stories is that we are all just one mistake away from running a red light or drinking too much. There’s the terror of being that person, innocent but just making some bad judgment, and the next thing you know, you’re in jail surrounded by other criminals. Those stories seem to resonate the most, and the feeling [from viewers] is just, “Man, I’m glad that’s not me.” These are stories you can’t make up, and we’ve seen them all.
What have you learned about human nature by doing this show?
What I’m most proud of is that we basically collected the most definitive look at correction ever recorded. Most people have no idea what goes on behind the bars. It’s important to see how we deal with the worst members of society. I do believe in rehabilitation. But I think it’s important to shed a light on even some of the most unpleasant parts of the world to get a better understanding of human nature.
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