By Thomas J. McLean
Few places are as tough to be in as a maximum-security prison, but it’s even more difficult when you make it your business to shoot footage in them.
That’s the case with 44 Blue Productions, which makes the documentary series Lockup and Lockup: Extended Stay for cable channel MSNBC. 44 Blue founder and exec producer on the series Rasha Drachkovitch has spent 15 years shooting in prisons all over the world and says he knows more about this particular situation than just about anyone else.
“You have to be aggressively patient,” he says. “You have to understand you’re entering into a world that’s full of rules and security issues and it’s a hostile, dangerous environment.”
Those rules, such as constant security checkpoints, make it difficult to do even the most simple task, such as move from one part of a prison to another. “As a story producer, there’s a story everywhere you point a camera, it’s just that you can’t get from point A to point B.”
Shooting in the prison requires the crew to be both small and self-sufficient. Drachkovitch says they typically go in with a director-producer, a cameraman, an audio person and a runner who assists with batteries, extra tape, lighting and, most importantly, releases. “Some prisons won’t even allow four, so it pushes us to three,” he says.
The producer often uses a mini DV camera to shoot additional footage. Just entering a prison is a bit of sensory overload.
“The first thing you notice is how loud it is,” Drachkovitch says. “Usually our audio guys are kind of freaking out.”
Lighting also is unusual, as most prisons have few if any windows, forcing the crew to use natural light in outdoor spaces and deal with fluorescents indoors. “It actually creates a very dramatic look,” Drachkovitch says.
Most prisons will not allow cell phones, and with limited equipment, that leaves the crew on its own both to find stories and to deal with any technical issues.
“You’ve got to really understand your priorities going in,” says David Hale, a field director for the show. “A lot of the time you have to make a lot of really tough decisions because you can’t check with your home office.”
A large part of the show is finding the stories within the prison. It helps that the crew goes in looking only to document what prison life is like, rather than investigate the crimes of the inmates.
“They realize that here’s an opportunity to tell my story,” Drachkovitch says.
Hale says it’s essential for the crew to be comfortable with what they’re doing. “You have to get over the hump of, ‘Can I go spend 10 days in a prison?’” he says. “There’s nothing worse than when you get footage back and the producer’s head is not in the game.”
Two of the show’s top producers are women, Hilary Heath and Susan Carney, and Drachkovitch says they do an excellent job of not being shaken by inmates who may not have seen a woman in years.
Hale says once permission is granted to shoot in a prison, they spend a day or two scouting out stories. “It’s a way to not only get the lay of the land, to tour the prison, it also gets you to develop a rapport with the liaisons and the public information officers who are your security detail.”
Guards and other prison staffers are invaluable in pointing out talkative inmates and prisoners with particularly interesting stories to tell. “After being there three or four days, you get a lot of people opening up. We shot in 48 different maximum security prisons in the U.S. and it’s the same pattern everywhere,” Drachkovitch says.
“We usually make it clear that this is more a look at daily life in prison, make it clear that they have a voice,” Hale says. “We’re not there to do an investigative piece on their crimes.”
After scouting out the stories, the crew will discuss with the prison administration what, where and who they’d like to shoot. “I at least like to have two days ahead planned,” Hale says.
For a typical episode, they shoot about 10 days in the prison. Hale says interviews are often set up very quickly by just going cell to celll and asking inmates if they’d like to chat.
He also says they discover a lot of stories by simply watching behavior in the yards, seeing what the hierarchies are.
Prison officials also are very accommodating when it comes to bringing cameras in to document their work. “The prison officials use it as an opportunity to tell their side of the story, to show this is a tough job,” Drachkovitch says. “They’re in there doing almost as much time as the inmates. We’ve found them to be incredibly open.”
Interesting things can happen when the cameras roll and the inmates begin to open up. “We had one inmate who was so comfortable, he started to confess to other crimes,” Drachkovitch says. “We had to hand over the tapes.”
Hale says most inmates relish the opportunity to talk because it’s a deviation in a life that’s almost all routine. “If they’ve got something to do other than watch the clock, it’s an amazing opportunity for them.”
It also can be tough on the crew to spend so much time in prisons, and finding people to fill those slots can be a challenge.
“We have over the years found specialists who just love this,” Drachkovitch says. “You have to be a very unique individual to want to go back to prison over and over.”
One thing that has improved is equipment, which has gotten lighter and more flexible over the years. “It allows us to go in and not come in with a jib,” Drachkovitch says. “We really try to come in and keep the cameras kind of low.”
There also are measures that must be invoked for the safety of the crew members. “We don’t share last names and we don’t get too close to the inmates,” Drachkovitch says. “When your crew has to put on a stab vest to protect them in certain areas, you know you’re not a regular production.”
Drachkovitch says the prison officials and guards do a great job of covering the crew’s backs. “Sometimes, when you’re interviewing the level 5 kind of inmates, the Hannibal Lector type, those interviews you’ll have a half dozen guards who accompany them.”
“It’s an extreme environment,” he says. “One of the things that ends up happening is if there’s a stabbing or a fight, we may have to hit the ground.”
Hale says while the experience is intimidating, he’s learned that from the prisoner’s perspective there’s little reason for them to endanger the crew. “A lot of these guys have to earn privileges (for TV or more recreation time). The last thing they’d do is attack you and lose all those privileges,” he says.
For Lockup, the crew usually goes in for short bursts of a week or so. But their current project, Lockup: Extended Stay, is a series that goes deep into life at San Quentin. “We’ve been filming there for four months,” Drachkovitch says.
That has allowed the crew to delve deeper into the lives and stories of the inmates, as well as follow evidentiary processes.
This project takes about a month of preproduction and three to four months of editing.
Drachkovitch says while life is hard in American prisons, his experiences shooting in prisons in countries such as China, Russia and Israel was even more harrowing.
“If any of the inmates here had to share a cell with 40 other guys like they do in Russia, or the kinds of things we saw in China … ,” he says. “If your crime is really egregious, you just kind of disappear. You rarely have a chance to air complaints.”
Drachkovitch says his work gives him an interesting perspective on crime. At a place like San Quentin, the recidivism rate is very high an
d 7 out of 10 inmates will at some point return to the facility after being released.
Still, there are stories of hope to be found in such places. “There are inmates who use their time in constructive ways and others who use their time to prey on other inmates and continue their circle of violence,” he says. “Doing these kind of shows, you’re thankful these facilities exist.”
Hale agrees: “We never cease to be impressed with the way that penal institutions in this country are run.”
Written by Tom McLean