The re­al­ity TV star on her 60 Days In Jail

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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”

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