Most visitors to Miami’s imposing county jail would prefer to stay on the safe side of the cell doors. Behind the bars, extortion is rife and inmates adhere to a vicious code where they physically fight for everything from food to respect.
So you can imagine the look of alarm on the face of a corrections officer when Louis Theroux asks to enter one of the cage-like maximum-security dwellings in order to interview those on the inside.
These are cells that can house up to 24 men, all accused of heinous crimes. But despite warnings that it’s an ill-advised move, Theroux calmly heads on in.
“Although these are dangerous guys, I couldn’t really see what they’d gain from punching a journalist in the face,” he tells me, when I ask if his collected demeanour masked any fear. “But I couldn’t help but notice the concern of the officers. That was what made me nervous. I guess they’re never quite sure what’s going to happen.”
The documentary-maker has experienced America’s penal system before, in a 2008 piece filmed at San Quentin State Prison in California, but this time he’s in Miami for a harrowing look at pre-trial incarceration.
Here, he listens to the dispiriting stories of those waiting for their day in court and learns more about the jail’s regime of intimidation and violence. It’s a strange, gladiatorial culture and one that Theroux got a fleeting first-hand taste of – once the cameras were turned off.
“One time I was leaving a cell and an inmate just grabbed me by the arm. All the officers had left and he pulled me back in. After a couple of seconds he let me go and everyone started laughing. So it was partly a joke, but they were also trying to get a rise out of me and capture my look of panic.
“On another occasion, I had my fingers up against a chain-link fence and an inmate who, for some reason, appeared not to like me, just went for my hand and started to press my fingers very hard against it. Just to hurt me and make me uncomfortable. I realised it was a game, if not a particularly nice one, and it reminded me of being at school where you’d get these little random acts of spite.”
The trouble is that for those spending all their time within the jail’s walls, the prevailing culture is as far removed from the playground as you can get. Trips to the infirmary are a daily occurrence and guards appear powerless to prevent the abuse. For Theroux, it was the savagery faced by America’s unconvicted that drew him back to the system.
“In America, prisons and jails are not the same thing. A prison is where you go to serve your sentence having been convicted, but jails are dedicated to housing people awaiting trial. Seeing as they’re technically innocent, you’d expect the environment in a jail to be less hardcore and punitive. But based on what I saw, it’s far more challenging.”
Throughout Theroux’s two-part investigation, we see faces and limbs bruised from beatings and hear tales of men being set upon in their cells over seemingly trivial matters, such as which bunk they’re supposed to be occupying. The whole atmosphere feels at odds with what detention purports to be about – punishment, but also rehabilitation. When I put this to Theroux, he explains the reason for the problem:
“The trouble is that they can’t rehabilitate them if they haven’t been found guilty of anything. That’s the paradox and because of the nature of the legal system, these things can go on for years. It’s extremely brutalising to be in there and the conditions are not designed to either educate or improve.”
All of which must take its toll on everyone involved, including those temporarily immersing themselves in the setting. On screen, Theroux talks about the production taking several weeks to film and I wonder how gruelling that must have been, especially with a partner and two young children back home in London.
“I don’t like being away from my family for long stretches,” he admits. “But I have a rule that I’m never away for more than two weeks, so I actually made four separate trips. What’s also helpful is working with a team with whom you can process the day’s events back at the hotel. I think it would be a lot different if I was out there on my own.”
So what feelings has the project left him with? With rehabilitation difficult, what chance is there that the inmates can be reformed? “I think the guys are dealing with so much chaos and coming from such difficult backgrounds, that the ones who come out as law-abiding individuals are the exception rather than the rule. That’s just based on a hunch.
“What’s amazing, though, is that this Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest attitude can’t be stamped out and that it prevails so much in one of the world’s richest countries.”
Part one of Louis Theroux: Miami Mega-Jail can be seen on Sunday 22 May at 9:00pm on BBC2, with part two airing the following week.