Jailbirds is Netflix’s newest behind-the-bars reality series. Over the course of six episodes, Jailbirds documents the lives of various prisoners at Sacramento County Jail, each with a different crime and a different story. True fly-on-the-wall insight makes Jailbirds stand out from other prison documentaries. These women are real inmates in a real prison and the lack of pretense gives an unvarnished look into a seldom-talked-about lifestyle.
Between the petty drama, a prison wedding, and serious toilet abuse, watching the inhabitants of the Sacramento County Jail interact is at times fascinating, terrifying, heartwarming, relatable, and even funny. The intent of delivering a message of hope, Jailbirds focuses on the women—both independently and as a group—instead of their crimes or how they found themselves behind bars.
However, in doing so, the docu-series offers only a glimpse at the uglier side, leaving out accounts of crimes committed within prison walls, disturbing statistics on inmate treatment by prison staff, and social injustices plaguing the prison system.
10 Pruno Can Be Deadly
Because of the limited selection of food available, prisoners have gotten quite creative when it comes to producing alcohol. “Pruno” (a.k.a. prison wine) can be made from various fruits, sugar, and bread, which provides the yeast necessary for fermentation. We watched the production process, which only required a plastic bag, hot water, and various fruit and fruit cocktail syrup. Aside from the obvious reasons why a cellie would want to avoid being caught with the illegal liquor, the longer the drink goes undetected, the longer it can ferment.
Based on the ingredients used and the time allowed for fermentation, Pruno’s alcohol content could range anywhere from 2-14%. Aside from the terrible taste, tricky formula with not-so-tricky ingredients, and the risk of severe consequences, Pruno can—and has—killed several inmates. In 2004, two jails reported botulism outbreaks among inmates to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention with potatoes used in Pruno the likely cause of death.
9 There Are Plenty Of Other Communication Methods Amongst Prisoners
One of the most talked-about pieces in the series is the prisoners’ method of communicating by literally yelling into their cell’s toilet. Aptly known as "The Bowl," incarcerated men and women have full conversations, transport foods, and other goods, and form romantic relationships with their male counterparts.
While this method of inter-prison communication is certainly creative, it’s not unique to the Jailbirds in Sacramento County Jail and can cause serious problems. Conversation through ventilation, drains, and yes, toilets have been a prison staple for decades and, while we witnessed jovial conversations, romantic professions, and pranks in Jailbirds, this type of “toilet talk” can be used to coerce, threaten, and secretly plot various plans with other inmates.
We saw one method, an almost comical four-flushes-per-hour policy, prison staff employs to prevent such backups—pun intended. L. Robert Kimball & Associates, the design firm responsible for providing America with over 145 prisons, has since made tweaks to their facilities—again, pun intended—in an effort to combat the privy information pipelines.
8 The Sacramento Sheriff Is No Stranger To Controversy On The Screen
A beautiful sentiment but certainly not the full picture. In a city with some of the highest excessive-force incidents, Sacramento has come to the forefront of many recent social justice movements. Along with a staggering number of class action lawsuits being leveled against the failed GOP congressional candidate, Jones’ long-held stance against transparency (including opposing police body cameras and dragging his feet on complying to turn over records.
Described by a spokesperson for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office, the six-episode series was this: “This is raw, this is real. This is what goes on behind the walls of the Sacramento County Jail.” Jailbirds delivers on its raw and eye-opening mission...to a point. By not portraying the many human rights lawsuits facing the Sheriff’s Office or illuminate glaring abuse issues with the prison system, Jailbirds paints a very real picture of life behind bars—albeit an incomplete one.
7 Did You Notice The Crime Committed During Filming?
In the episode “Swimmin’ in sh*t, Bruh!”, we meet Kerri, A1’s “girlfriend,” who not only breaks prison rules by hiding contraband (pictures for him), she admitted to contacting his ex-girlfriend and Jailbird star Megan Hawkins, who’s currently charging A1 with domestic abuse.
Openly admitting to smuggling contraband in the form of inappropriate photos, Kerri's crime seems victimless, but it's the perfect example of loved ones smuggling illegal items into the prison.
6 Inmates Are Constantly “Ducking” With Prison Staff
“Ducking,” a term as common as “Bruno” in many a jail, refers to a common technique inmates use to slowly gain the trust and therefore modify the behaviors of prison staff members to their advantage. So common is this type of manipulation, cellies across the nation refer to it as “ducking”—with the coerced staff member the “duck.” Whether it’s through flirting, idle chat, and, sometimes, even sexual favors, prisoners slowly build up relationships with the guards in an attempt to persuade—or blackmail—the employee into breaking the rules to their benefit.
This coercion is so common, an anonymous prisoner penned an eight-page warning pamphlet, aptly titled, Downing a Duck (An Inmate's Version), to be distributed to visitors and volunteers.
5 The Prison Keeps Its Own Secrets Under Lock And Key
Prisons across the nation have been put under the social microscope over the past few years—and rightfully so. The very prison in which the documentary is filmed settled in a class-action lawsuit with Disability Rights California last month. The complaint alleged the prison failed to address what five independent jail health inspectors deemed to be “dangerously understaffed,” “wholly inadequate,” and “operat[ing] in a state of near-perpetual emergency.”
One such expert described the prison as "very stark and unlikely to meet constitutional standards.” The 2015 report, which revealed the county held disabled inmates in excessive solitary confinement, citing one unit, in which inmates spent nearly 24 hours a day in bare cells and allowed to spend time in a dayroom that smelled of feces.
4 What Happened To Monster?
A central fixture throughout the mini-series, Monster paid her debt to society, but less than a month after the premiere, the fearsome felon found herself on the wrong side of the law, again. Confirmed by the Elk Grove Police Department, Megan ‘Monster’ Hawkins, has landed herself back behind bars, with another debt: Hawkins allegedly used fraudulent identification in an attempt to open bank accounts.
Wrapped in a perfect stolen bow, Hawkins—who was, ironically, recognized by a viewer—fled the scene in a stolen vehicle. Apprehended only a short distance from the aforementioned bank, Hawkins is back in cuffs and back in jail. With the nickname “Monster,” written across her face in bold, black ink, you'd think she’d realize it’s not exactly easy for her to take on a new identity.
3 Jailbirds Was Uniquely Difficult To Produce
One of the biggest hurdles of making the documentary was the prison system, itself. In an interview with Decider, executive producer Rasha Drachkovitch laments lost storylines due to random, last-minute transfers. Because of the dropout rate, the Jailbirds crew was forced to be nimble during their many months of filming.
There are also many sensitivities around filming contraband and illicit activities. For the sake of viewers at home, the producers filmed productions of two contraband concoctions. In order to demonstrate how to make authentic Pruno, the crew filmed the inmates, but plenty of guards were behind the scenes. To ensure the rule-breaking commonalities were above board, officers trailed the crew and the participating inmates closely and destroyed all contraband immediately after the camera stopped rolling.
2 Correspondence At The Behest Of A Prisoner Is A Serious Crime
A1 is the player of players. Juggling a girlfriend on the outside, a love on the inside, and an ex-girlfriend, who also calls the Sacramento County Jail home.
Meghan, known as “Monster,” has a featuring role in the documentary, during which she divulges to a friend she filed a domestic assault case against her boyfriend, the aforementioned player. Kerri, the only one not behind bars, contacted Monster via email, compelling her to change her testimony.
1 You’ve Probably Seen And Heard Of This Prison Before
Jailbirds is only one of the many shows filmed within the prison walls. A handful of other programs, including a full season of NBC’s prison drama, Locked Up and reality TV show COPS, which follows Sacramento County Sheriff patrol units as they attempt to catch criminals, have used Sacramento County Jail cells as film sets for decades. Lock Up, a prison drama starring Sylvester Stallone was coincidentally produced by the same team behind Jailbirds.
The jail also housed some famous inmates, including headline-grabbers like the Unabomber (aka Ted Kaczynski), a domestic terrorist who killed three people and injured 23 others in a series of bombing attacks between 1978 and 1995, and serial killer Dorothea Puente (aka the “Death House Landlady’), who received life imprisonment without parole for nine confirmed murders.