Fresh reality show concepts are hard to find. A&E found one with its hit “60 Days In,” where people volunteer to go to jail for two months to experience what life is like on the inside. (imdb.com users rated it a very positive 8.2 out of 10.)
The second season, shot in an Indiana jail, began tonight and features Monalisa Johnson, a Queens mom who used to live in Atlanta and has a daughter in prison for armed robbery to feed a drug addiction. “She’s a caged animal now,” she said on the show, before tearing up. “I kind of don’t even think of her as being human.”
She runs Parents With Incarcerated Children to work through her pain. She said she wanted to do “60 Days In” to be a greater voice for prison reform. “I want to help [my daughter] and help many people alongside of her,” she said on air.
In a separate interview, Monalisa said the producers of “60 Days In” found her on social media. At first, she had no interest but the more she thought about it, the more intrigued she became. Naturally, her daughter Sierra thought “it was the worst idea in the free world. Why would she want to put herself in there for any reason? She felt like I would never come out the same.”
But Monalisa told her, “I need to know what it’s like on the other side of those walls. I need to understand what you are going through day to day.’ Not only that, with me being the founder of this organization helping parents who have kids incarcerated, I wanted to know the lifestyle of incarceration. I felt like I needed my own voice, to be able to stand stronger for the parents by knowing the truth.”
She said her daughter was stuck with a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence, giving the judge no flexibility, even after a plea. It was her first offense as well. Monalisa moved to Atlanta from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Sierra graduated high school and attended the Art Institute of Atlanta. She was on the Dean’s List at her school when she was arrested, Monalisa said.
When she found out Sierra was in jail, “I was beyond devastated. That’s not what I raised her to be.”
At first, they used a public defender but she found the person unresponsive. She ended up spending $37,000 in savings to defend her daughter. She said they took the plea because the alternative could have been worse.
Monalisa, who now lives in Queens, travels to Georgia monthly to see her, stretching her budget to afford the $1,000 in airfare, hotel and rental car. She said she cut back her second year to every other month but then watched her daughter degrade emotionally and depressed. So she returned to monthly visits this past year.
She said her first visit with her daughter after her time on the show was emotional in a good way. “She cried the entire time,” she said. “At the same time, we had one of the best conversations we ever had. Some of the things she told me she went through was way more devastating. She was in such a deep state of depression. She had nobody to talk to. Nobody to reach out to except by letter. Nobody would take her calls or visit her. It was rough.”
Monalisa’s cover story for the show is getting pulled over near the jail and being arrested after cops found a warrant for her arrest in New York from a previous charge of drug and gun possession. The warden said they have to be consistent with their stories or the inmates will get suspicious. (If you watched season one, one of the more arrogant participants slipped up and was quickly ostracized and that appears to be happening again with another participant Ryan season two.)
“People assumed I was a drug dealer or married to a drug dealer,” Monalisa said. “I look like a gangster.”
In the first episode, she finds out the phones in “classification,” an area before she gets sent to a pod, don’t work. She calls the intercom to tell the officers. She does it multiple times so an officer enters to tell them that’s for medical emergencies only. She is already irritated and making a spectacle of herself.
She said she thought she could hold up emotionally while in jail but it was tough given how slow time goes by. And her daughter was never far from her mind. She was annoyed how noisy and rambunctious the younger inmates were even into the middle of the night.
Her best window to have relative “alone” time was right after breakfast. She said the younger inmates tended to sleep from 9 a.m. to noon.
Oddly, she said inmates loved watching crime shows like “The First 48 Hours” and the occasional “Real Housewives.” But comedies were rare. She would try to watch “Martin” or “Living Single” just to have a laugh while the others sleep. She would also journal or draw to pass the time.
“I chronicled everything that was happening,” she said. “I’d write five to 25 pages a day. It was how I was feeling emotionally, how I was taking a look at life, what I was thinking about all the participants.” As not to arouse suspicion, she frequently mailed her diary items to a family member. To fill time, she took part in GED classes (although she already had a GED) and AA, although she wasn’t an alcoholic.
Monalisa feels fortunate when she was Sierra’s age, she didn’t end up in jail. “I was no innocent flower,” she said. “I partied. I hung out and drove drunk a couple of times. Thank God I never hurt anybody or turn out to be a drug addict and alcoholic.”
Two observations from her time there: there was very little rehabilitation and she said access to medicine was difficult unless you had commissary money. “The joke was if you have a headache, you better know three days in advance before you get any aspirin.”
But overall, she had no regrets doing this. Monalisa said she feels like she can face the truth better. “I know I have the strength to handle the truth,” she said, “to talk about the truth and not get upset about the truth anymore.” She also regained some faith in the correctional system. She at first wondered about the motivations of the sheriff willing to do this.
She eventually realized that James Noel, the sheriff who designed the undercover program, was truly doing this to improve his jail, not for publicity. “He had no ulterior motives,” she said. “He was willing to shine a light on the facility’s problems. Who does that? He really wanted to make things better. I have a lot of respect for him.”
“60 Days In,” 9 p.m. Thursdays, A&E
By RODNEY HO/ firstname.lastname@example.org, originally filed Thursday, August 18, 2016