- “60 Days In” is a documentary series that follows seven undercover inmates at a jail in Pinal County, Arizona.
- The undercover inmates quickly learned in jail, their race played a role in virtually all social interactions, from eating to watching TV.
- One participant, a chaplain and former gang member named Abner, said race was even more important than gang affiliations, and members of rival gangs coexisted if they were of the same race.
At Pinal County Adult Detention Center in Florence, Arizona, an inmate’s race dictates everything from where he sleeps and who he eats lunch with to when he gets his hair cut and what he watches on TV.
The participants were given false identities and booked under fake charges before being sent to live among the jail’s 500-inmate population. Only a small group of administrators, including Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb, knew their secret.
The undercover inmates were tasked with finding out as much information as possible about the inner workings of jail life and reporting back to the sheriff after their 60-day stints.
Immediately into their stays, the participants learned that life in jail was highly segregated, and that race played a role in virtually all social interactions.
One participant, a chaplain from New York City named Abner, learned that lesson especially fast: Just moments after he entered his assigned living area, Abner, who is Puerto Rican, was greeted by two Latino inmates and ushered to the room where other Latino inmates sleep.
“This jail is segregated. There’s no other way around it,” Abner said on the show. “Whatever race you belong to, you have to follow the rules.”
As the participants discovered, there are three main racial factions in the jail. “Woods,” or white inmates, “kinfolk,” or black inmates, and Chicanos, the word inmates used to describe most Hispanic inmates.
Not only did inmates eat and share cells with members of their respective races, but they were expected to back them up in disputes with members of other races, too. Veteran inmates are always on the lookout for members of their own races who don’t demonstrate loyalty.
“The violence can be very violent if you’re not falling in,” Lamb told Business Insider.
Abner is a former Latin Kings gang member, and the only participant in the show’s history who had previously served time in prison. He said the biggest difference between his previous stints behind bars and this one was that in Pinal County, even if two inmates were members of rival gangs on the outside, they coexisted peacefully so long as they were the same race.
“You come in white, doesn’t matter what gang you belong to in the streets – you’re white,” he said. “If you come in black, and you’re a Blood, a Crip, or whatever – you’re black.”
“I’m not used to that, because in the East Coast, your gang is your race, and in Arizona, your race is your gang,” he told Business Insider.
Even innocuous moments like haircuts are fraught with racial tension on the show. In one early episode, after a guard delivers hair clippers to the inmates, Abner learns that according to the inmates’ self-imposed rules, white inmates get first crack at the clippers, followed by black inmates and then Hispanic inmates.
“I know in my mind this is about power and control,” Abner said.
A black inmate eventually accuses Abner of trying to jump the line, igniting a heated dispute that nearly turns violent.
“At home, I’m a chaplain. I go to hospitals, I feed the needy, you know, we administer to all,” Abner said. “But in here, I’m a cholo.”
In another of the jail’s pods, an undercover inmate named Mark inadvertently triggered conflict over his choice of TV channels. When Mark, who is white, was informed it was the white faction’s day to choose a TV channel for the pod to watch, he reluctantly asked a guard to change the channel to ESPN, angering other inmates and thrusting him into an uncomfortable confrontation.
“I didn’t want to get involved with all the inmate politics,” said Mark, a former Army intelligence specialist. “And now, it’s like, oh my goodness, I screwed up.”
Lamb said that although he doesn’t approve of the racial segregation that takes place in his facility, there’s not much administrators can do, short of dividing members of each race into their own pods – and that “furthers the problem,” he said.
“You have to understand, we don’t promote these things, but it is very hard for us to control,” the sheriff told Business Insider.
“We knew we had a race issue,” he added. “But it’s still sobering to see it.”
The fifth season of “60 Days In” debuted earlier this month. Previous seasons of the show took place in southern Indiana’s Clark County Jail and Fulton County Jail in Atlanta, and explored issues such as gang culture, drug use, and abuse at the hands of jail staff.
The next episode of “60 Days In” airs Thursday at 10 p.m. on A&E.