“I’m going to jail,” says Reggie Yates in a voiceover at the beginning of his latest BBC3 documentary. “I want to understand the American justice system, but from the inside.”
He’s spending five nights in Bexar County jail in Texas, in a cell, in prison uniform, without any of his own possessions. When he is booked in he is handcuffed and shackled like any other prisoner, and when his cell door clicks shut for the first time, his unease is tangible.
Reggie makes the most of the setup, immediately getting to know his fellow inmates on the low-risk unit, including 19-year-old Alex. It’s his first day in jail, and as Alex explains why he’s there – he was arrested for possession of a small amount of marijuana that he was using to manage various mental health problems – you see the reality of his situation hit him. He’s lost his job, his home; he can no longer send $200 every week to his stepfather in Mexico, to help pay for his dialysis.
He hasn’t told the prison staff about his fragile mental health, because he doesn’t want to be transferred to the psych unit. Later, we get to see this unit, and the one for prisoners on suicide watch, where they lie on benches in a communal room, naked except for blankets; many of them are visibly distressed.
Though Reggie’s empathy and mildness is constant, this is one of a few moments in the film that feel uncomfortably voyeuristic. When he speaks to staff about how prisoners with mental health problems are treated, they seem more willing to tell him juicy horror stories than explain how they look after severely ill individuals.
There’s no doubt that both the huge numbers of Americans in prisons and the provision of psychiatric care to those prisoners are topics worth scrutiny. And you’ve got to applaud Reggie’s willingness to embark on such an experiment, which does provide a rare insight into what life in US jails is like – and into the many and varied reasons why so many Americans, especially American men, fetch up behind bars.
But the behind-closed-doors format means that he doesn’t have the freedom (pun intended) he had in his more successful documentaries. Such privileged access may well have come with conditions, and the staff he speaks to never stray far from the party line.
There’s a similar sense in the second film in the Worst Weeks series (available on iPlayer), which sees him join the Mexican Army as they try and forestall the deadly consequences of the ongoing drugs war.
Again, it’s a brave move, and Reggie copes admirably. But only one soldier, Luis (below), speaks English (or so Reggie is told); he acts as a translator, and there are several points when Reggie seems well aware that the translations he is given are not entirely accurate.
He’s stationed in Acapulco, where the local economy is heavily reliant on tourism; he worries that he’s part of a campaign to lure international tourists back, as every official he meets insists that the area doesn’t have a problem with violence or drugs, even when everything else Reggie encounters suggests otherwise. This in itself is revealing, but not, you feel, what he and the film-makers set out to uncover.
But, as in his Texas film, there’s not a lot Reggie can do about it. He’s restricted by the elaborate setups, which is a shame because he’s proven himself a more than capable documentary-maker; his Extreme Russia series won him the Best Presenter gong at the Royal Television Society awards in April.
The most telling, affecting moments in the films are when Reggie quietly draws the truth out of people – when Alex confesses to having suicidal thoughts, when Luis, the young Mexican soldier, reveals that his grandfather died just days ago, but he’s yet to cry. That ability to connect with people is Reggie’s strength – the BBC should use it.
Reggie Yates in a Texan Jail is on BBC1 tonight at 10:45