The reality TV star on her 60 Days In Jail
As an ex-prison governor with a passion for the culture and behaviours that organisations create, it is no wonder, perhaps, that I couldn’t get enough of the Channel 4’s 60 Days In Jail series. Many a time in my “prison days” I had said I would love to spend a night in a cell, to really understand what went on when we closed the doors behind us. It was as if someone read my mind; seven members of the public went completely undercover in a Jeffersonville Federal Jail for 60 days. Each had different reasons for joining the programme, but their remit was to report back to the Sheriff (the only one who knew who they were) on what the staff and prisoners were really doing. A rare glance into a world that, whilst for me still feels like “home”, is for others a source of intrigue and excitement.
Isn’t it funny how sometimes, when you watch a TV programme, particularly a series, you feel in some way connected to the characters? One of the participants, Tami - a police officer who is gay and who was brought up in foster care - caught my attention especially. Soon after the knowing glance my partner and I exchanged as she appeared on screen, Tami was talking about her wife and her eight-year-old daughter. Same-sex relationships are becoming increasingly common on TV (even in series like Location, Location, Location!) yet we still shared a smile in recognition of this small step towards inclusion.
As the episodes continued, Tami’s story began to unfold and my sense of empathy and admiration grew. A connection. So imagine my mix of excitement and slightly stalker- esque nerves when DIVA offered me the opportunity to Skype her for an interview!
During the programme, Tami had mentioned that her driver for getting involved was to understand more about herself. In the UK, we haven’t
reached the end of the series yet, but I need to know whether she had achieved that goal. “The programme really changed me,” she says. “I finally understand what makes me tick.”
Wow, that’s not what I expected to hear. She explains how growing up in foster care, she and her brother both felt isolated and struggled to fit in. But their lives took very different paths; she joined the police and he spiralled into a life of drug use and criminality. Her tone suggests that the difference still haunts her today. Similarly to my experience in the prison service, she believes the police culture reinforces a “them and us” attitude, but when your loved ones are suddenly on the opposite side, it is hard to reconcile. Frustrated that she would always see the same faces in trouble, she wanted to understand what it felt like to walk in those shoes.
Tami joined the programme searching for a connection to the world her brother knew and couldn’t step out of. Most LGBT people can relate only too well to how it feels to not fit in. I’m curious whether she thought growing up gay gave her any insight. She giggles nervously. “I think it helped me [be] more comfortable living on the fringes; I knew I could only be me and therefore perhaps found it easier not to be tempted by the false friendships my brother succumbed to.”
So what about during the programme, did she find it easy or hard to fit in? The episode I’d watched the night before had Tami breaking down. With that in my head, I ask her what it had been like. Nothing had prepared her for the prison environment, she tells me. In a block with no windows and no outside exercise, she didn’t even see the outdoors for two months. “I felt like I was in a goldfish bowl, nowhere to hide, nothing to do, nowhere to get away from the other 23 people. I was obviously playing a role, but actually so was everyone else. The sense of hopelessness and panic is overwhelm- ing. People become whatever they need to be to survive.”
Again, I wonder whether being gay, and the necessary covering that we all have to do sometimes, had helped her at all. The bolshy, slightly aggressive character I had watched on TV seems miles away as she nervously fidgets, looking down. “They made me look like a jerk.” She talks about the scripting and the editing, placing things out of sequence and not showing the reasons she was shouting at other inmates, such as them snorting nicotine tablets (smoking is forbidden in the US jail system) or picking on more vulnerable prisoners.
We touch on the perception of jail being a lesbian frenzy; I was surprised this cliche wasn’t even mentioned in the programme. Not exactly Orange Is The New Black, eh? She blushes slightly. “Let’s just say there was activity and I was hit on many times. But [the programme makers] never showed it. Many of the women there were ‘gay for the stay’... not really about love, lust or attraction, more about feeling an emotional connection to something in such a lonely place.”
As an athlete, I regularly spend time away from home and know how hard that is, but I am intrigued to know how Tami and her wife navigated this circumstance. “Yep, she wasn’t best pleased when I first raised the idea,” Tami smirks, “but she knew I needed to do this for me. Seeing my daughter on the video phone, hearing them both say they missed me, was tremendously hard.” She laughs as she talks about her homecoming; how scripted and trite it was, but how her daughter had gained status with her friends for being seen on TV. Replaying the first few weeks out of jail, she recalls still feeling for the ledge on the edge of her bunk, falling back into the prison rituals she had developed.
It is hard for me to hear her talk about the lack of humanity, care or professionalism demonstrated by the staff. Despite it being in another country, I can’t help but feel a dent to my pride in a service I still care deeply about. But the experience has clearly driven Tami on. She lights up telling me how she has since left the police and is now working as a resettlement officer, providing support to prison-leavers and helping them find that all-important sense of purpose, value and belonging in society. Since the programme has aired, she has maintained contact with two of her fellow inmates (the real prisoners) and supported them into jobs and housing.
Post “release”, her status as one of few openly lesbian TV role-models has also taken her by surprise. People hugging her on the street, others trolling her on social media. We explore how that felt compared to her first coming out, in her 20s, some people embracing her, others like her father, shaming her and giving her a sense of stigma she still carries. “If being me on TV can help others, then I’m really pleased,” she says. But: “In the USA today, there is a sense of nervousness that equality is moving backwards. My wife and I have been married for 10 years, but I fear society is starting to invalidate that.” Sometimes, we agree, having a platform is as much a duty as an opportunity, and that if one person sees her on TV and takes strength from that, then it’s worth it.
We could chat for hours, but her daughter is home from school due to snow and she is expected at work later that day. “Prison has made me a better person. Not many people get the chance to really test themselves and answer those deep-seated questions. It’s not until you walk in someone else’s shoes that you really understand.” And in that moment, the woman on the TV and I, miles apart, share an understanding. It’s all about how the dots link up. Feeling you belong and have a sense of value really is the key to happiness.
60 Days In Jail is available to watch now on All4.
“Jail was a goldfish bowl; nowhere to hide, nothing to do, 23 other people”