For 15 years, Rasha Drachkovitch and his production company, 44 Blue, have been taking people inside prison walls with a no-holds-barred look at what it’s like to be incarcerated.
“It all started as MSNBC was establishing itself,” says Drachkovitch. “They were looking to do some non-scripted fare and an executive there had just come from A&E where he’d produced a series called Behind Bars: The World’s Toughest Prisons. It rated really well so he had the idea to do more of that kind of show and he came to us. In our first year, we were able to go into four prisons. We put those shows on the air and the numbers popped immediately. That’s when we got the ok to turn it into a series instead of just stand alone specials.”
Drachkovitch says that the endurance of the series is directly related to the continued call from fans for more content. “What I get all the time from people is that it’s real. So much television today, even if it’s called ‘reality,’ is really ‘scripted reality’ or improvised, embellished, or so on. This is real. People are just fascinated to watch people who are on the edge, dealing with what they’ve done in their lives and sometimes just watching that makes someone feel better about themselves. Maybe at the end of a long day, you pop on Lockup and think, ‘oh man, my life could be a lot worse.’”
While the series definitely has its fans, Drachkovitch is not immune to the fact that Lockup isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. “I totally understand that it’s not for everybody, but I do think there’s something interesting to learn from it. In this country we’re incarcerating more people than anywhere else in the world, so if it wasn’t for shows like Lockup this would be a completely anonymous and silent part of our population. So, no, it may not be for everybody, but at the same time it’s important because it sheds a light into an area that little is written about or discussed.”
Clearly, that ‘shedding light’ part is only possible through the use of cameras in these facilities, which Drachkovitch says creates an interesting dynamic with the prisoners. “When we introduce cameras into the environment, we find that three phases occur. The first phase is that we’re definitely a distraction and so we get the most hostility toward us on day one with a lot of shouting things like, ‘Get outta here!’ Once we get passed Phase One and they figure us out, Phase Two is ‘what are you guys doing?’ So the curiosity factor comes out in Phase Two. Then Phase Three is ‘Hey I’ve got a story I wanna tell you,’ and everybody has a story. We let them come to us in Phase Three as opposed to pushing for it. The key thing is that when you’re there for four or five months, they forget that we’re there. We do become part of the fabric and that’s when we get the most compelling stuff.”
The comfort level to which the prisoners get to with Drachkovitch and has team has led to some surprising results on the show. “Some of them get so comfortable with our people that they start admitting to other crimes! We have had, on occasion, our tapes get subpoenaed because all of a sudden these cold case files start coming to light. People admitting to other crimes – that’s a by-product that we never, ever envisioned would be part of the show.”
Drachkovitch has also learned about what he, and others, think it will it take to boost the anti-recidivism rate, explaining, “This great Warden at one of the facilities said a simple thing that struck me, he said, ‘we’re asking the wrong question. The question we’re asking now is, so what did you do? That’s the wrong question because we can find that out in the police report, they robbed, stole… or whatever it is. The question we should be asking is, what happened to you.’ He’s absolutely right because once you understand what happened, whether it was peer pressure or drugs, crime in the family or whatever, then you can start getting at, hopefully, this person’s emotions and issues. I love being able to tackle topics like that. It gets the national conversation going about what we’re doing in corrections and what steps we can be taking to help reduce the crime rate in this country.”
Another surprising element about the series that Drachkovitch absolutely did not expect was that Lockup would reach a certain level of pop culture awareness. “There have been references to the show from Taylor Swift and Oprah. There was a parody on Beavis & Butt-head. The Daily Show has mentioned us more than once. I never thought that would happen. People just seem to gravitate to the show and appreciate it for what it is and can’t stop watching it.”
Among celebrity fans, Drachkovitch says one in particular used the show as a creative springboard. “I got a call from (Dwayne) The Rock (Johnson). He said ‘I love Lockup. I watch it all the time and I wanted to reach out to you because I have an idea for a film,’ and he pitched me the idea about a criminal boot camp in Miami. I loved it. The Rock was arrested a number of times as a kid growing up in Hawaii. He was headed toward lock up himself and fortunately he turned his life round. We put together a proposal and sold a show to HBO called Rock and a Hard Place about kids in juvenile facilities. That was a great call to get. He’s a fantastic partner. He’s great to these kids and really works with them to trying to help them to get their lives together.”
Even after all of the success of the series, Drachkovitch still has trouble believing that Lockup has been on as long as it has. “I truly believed that after a while this topic / genre would’ve run its course, but obviously it hasn’t. We do about 24 to 30 hours a year and every episode is different and really is unique in its own way. If you’d said to me in 2000 that I’d still be producing this show 15 years later, I don’t think I would have believed you, but yet, here we are.”
Drachkovitch says his team has no thoughts of slowing down at this point. In fact, he was quick to point out that he’s excited about some upcoming episodes. “We have some amazing stories that will be appearing this year that we think will really take the series to a new level in terms of the storytelling. What you’ll see will really draw you in. There’s no doubt about it — Lockup is still going strong.”
Lockup airs Saturdays at 9pm e/p on MSNBC.