by Anna Roberts - Press Association
"I never dreamed it was bad as it was when I walked in office." -Sheriff Noel from The Jail: 60 Days In A group of seven – including a full-time mum, Muhammad Ali's daughter and a teenage boy – have revealed they DELIBERATELY went to prison, even though they had not committed any crimes. In a pioneering experiment, the group posed as inmates at a notoriously rough jail, secretly reporting back to the jail sheriff about what could be done to improve conditions. Previously, drug-dealing and violence were commonplace at Clark County Jail in Jeffersonville, Indiana, and security was so lax it was common to hear the distant ring of a mobile phone echoing around a cell – even one belonging to a murderer. Local drug-addicts were even deliberately getting arrested so they could come to the slammer to get their fix, and inmates also dealt narcotics to the outside world.
A container attached to a string would travel from a smashed window inside the jail to the street. Users, desperate for a hit, would gather in the road, put in money in the container, send the box back inside and wait for their fix of heroin to arrive. That was until Sheriff Jamey Noel took over the running of the county penitentiary in early 2015. He was confronted with a mammoth task – improving standards and slashing corruption. Sheriff Noel blamed the poor conditions on a "period of mismanagement" ahead of him taking over. Speaking of the unruly prisoners, he said: "They thought the environment was better in jail than out. They were basically running the facility. The jail was in pretty tough shape. "It had been mismanaged for a good while.
They could have booked themselves out but they were purposely staying.
"I had people who wanted to stay in jail because they were able to get street-level drugs cheaper in jail than they could out of it. There were people who had the ability to bond out of jail. They had money on the books. They could have booked themselves out but they were purposely staying." Undeterred, Sheriff Noel managed to overhaul conditions at the prison – by sneaking seven innocent individuals to secretly report on how crooks were operating. He told other inmates they were filming as part of a documentary on first-time prisoners. The group of seven posed as inmates and were filmed for the duration of their stay as part of a documentary called The Jail: 60 Days In. Prison officers, known as corrections' officers, were oblivious to the fact the new seven inmates – Robert, Ali's daughter Maryum, Zach, Tami, Jeff, Isaiah and Barbra – were innocent citizens. They were told they had been arrested out-of-state.
Former teen mum Barbra, 25, was invited to be a participant as the voice of the average American. A military wife and mum of two young children, she had never seen the inside of a prison before entering Clark County Jail. She struggled to understand why jailers were given the same rights as hardworking families. But she admitted she changed her views during her jail stint – and even made friends with some fellow inmates. "It was very scary and very life-changing in jail," she said. "I learnt things about myself and my life that I never thought I would know. "My eyes were opened to all humans. "Before this, I was kind of judgemental. "Now I am so open-hearted. I made friends with some of the inmates. "They were mothers and they missed their children. We connected on that. They were missing their families." But she said jail could be improved, as inmates were allowed to "sit around and watch TV" instead of working. She also said there was "a lot of sexual activity in the jail system," and told of how people smoked drugs via tampons and exchanged medication, desperate to get high.
People also smuggled in watches and jewellery – anything they could sell or exchange. "There are a lot of relationships formed in jail," she said. "All you have to cling to is the people you are with," she said, explaining how she bonded with inmates by "offering them support and guidance." The group of seven were limited privileges as other inmates, providing Sheriff Noel with an once-in-a-lifetime insight into true prison life. But he was not popular for it. The prisoners, annoyed at their privileges being shut down, initially used their contraband mobiles to post moaning messages about him on social media. "I can't get high in the Clark County Jail anymore," jailbirds whined. "Bring back the old sheriff."
In his first month of taking over, Sheriff Noel estimated 55 of 530 inmates could have afforded to leave jail – but preferred not to. But he was determined not throw in the towel. "I took a deep breath," he explained. "I like to solve problems, I like to fix things. I knew it could not get any worse." However, his mission to take back control of the jail from its inmates was not without its obstacles. Soon after starting his new role, he discovered the smashed window prisoners were using to deal drugs to the outside. From there, he began carrying out raids – but quickly realised that more needed to be done. "We were trying to get the street-level drugs and cell phones out the jail," he explained. "You would walk into a section and you would literally hear a cell phone ringing, not just vibrating but ringing."
Sheriff Noel said the crackdown on contraband was successful, but led to him facing "derogatory comments" on social media from the inmates themselves. "But you shouldn't have cell phones in jail anyway," he said. "It's a huge security risk. "It was an absolute nightmare. You were getting victims of crimes contacted by people in jail." Then, when he was contacted by the producers of a television show, Sheriff Noel decided to take them up on their offer. "I told them I was having a tough time," he said.
"I decided I wanted some undercover folks. "It was a tough commitment. But I wanted a true grasp of what was going on." He admitted there were legal issues with bringing innocent people into jail, but he addressed these with his attorney, and said he thought the risk was worth it. Initially Sheriff Noel and the production company recruited 100 people before interviewing them and choosing seven to go behind bars. There was just one person in the sheriff's office who knew they were not real inmates. "We gave them some training, basically safety training, what not to do really," said Sheriff Noel. "Some people took the task very seriously.
They were good witnesses." He was pleased with how the experiment worked and that it helped him gain some useful intelligence, including discovering that people were purposely getting arrested. One fake inmate even found out another prisoner was planning to stage a jail coup. "We circumvented a small jail takeover with some homemade shanks," Sheriff Noel said. "If you do not stay on top of it everyday it takes only a matter of days to get in bad shape. "But this was beyond my worst imagination. "I never dreamed it was bad as it was when I walked in office."