Stacey Dooley in the USA: Girls Behind Bars

Stacey Dooley

Being a middle-class young white woman the chances of me rubbing arms with America’s most wanted isn’t very likely and so by simply switching over to BBC Three on a Monday night and viewing an hour length documentary about female prisoners, is something alien, shocking yet accessible and quite entertaining to me. This brings me to another television programme I enjoy, Stacey Dooley’s documentaries for BBC Three.

Fearless and pretty TV presenter Stacey Dooley has made several hard-hitting documentaries with BBC Three and is not to be reckoned with. The bright eyed and bushy tailed 20 something year old, has travelled the world over covering subjects as critical as child Labour and the global financial crisis.

I first came across Stacey in her original sweatshop expose ‘Blood, Sweat and T-Shirts’ where she travelled to India to live and work alongside the people in the Indian fashion industry making clothes for the U.K high street. Time elapsed and whilst her pretty face popped up every now and then, alongside more impressive BBC Three documentaries covering everything from, as their various titles ensue ‘Kids with Guns’ to ‘Child Sex Trafficking in Cambodia’. It wasn’t until her three-part series ‘Stacey Dooley in the USA’ which aired in October 2012 when I really became a dedicated viewer.

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The series kicked off with Stacey heading to the only female boot camp prison in the United States. Being female and never had been to prison, let alone a ‘boot camp’ prison in the U.S, the documentary felt compelling to watch. I wanted to see the conditions the women were summoned to, what their crimes were, how they felt and what prisons stateside were actually like.  These curiosities are clearly shared with Stacey, as she becomes absorbed and somewhat sympathetic for more then a few of the inmates.

The documentary begins with shots of the prison from the outside: chicken wire, fences, and CCTV cameras, black vans unloading prisoners dressed in green overalls, the prison officers and Stacey Dooley, standing plain yet pretty to one side. The colours are almost lifeless, black; dark greens and greys reinforcing a sense of isolation and hopelessness. Instead of serving time in prison the girls have taken the option of going to boot camp where military discipline is used to change behaviour, the programme is called, ‘Shock’ and if the girls can stick it out, they can leave in 6 months. Various clips of the prisoners running, jumping, crying, having there heads shaven, as well as Stacey’s empathetic reactions and short interviews with both those in charge and the inmates, we’re given a glimpse as to what’s in store all taken from the candid perspective of Stacey and the BBC Three team, Producer Wendie Ottewill and Director Xaviar Alford.

With unprecedented access into the prison we witness the 56 girls of G1 Platoon, going through ‘Shock’ as their stripped from all sense of individuality and femininity and ‘shocked’ into shape. The day begins at 5.30am, by which time the girls must be dressed, beds made and station fit and tidy. The girls are given three minutes to shower, 8 at a time, which is why all the women have their heads shaven upon entering the camp, to save time on grooming. Sound harsh? That’s just the beginning. Everything the ladies do is timed, meaning they can’t walk. They must run in order to do anything at all, even if it is to brush their teeth. The girls come to shock for 6 months as an alternative to serving they’re outstanding three years in prison sentences for their non-violent crimes. The aim of shock is to keep the women out of prison and cleaning up their lives and behaviours for life.

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As the women do their 45 minute military style exercises and 1 mile run, we meet one of the inmates, Tiffany, a 23 year-old ex gang member from New York who fails to complete one of her sets and springs to Stacey’s attention. She speaks politely as we learn about her story and some of the other new comers who are also struggling with the workout.  After we witness the rules of shower time and breakfast as well as the consequences for those who break the rules of the ‘shock’ programme, Stacey interviews Tiffany again, who also broke a rule at breakfast, by not sitting properly at the table.  I like how Stacey interviews the same female. It allows us as the viewer to also build a rapport with Tiffany as Stacey is. She asks questions about her tattoos and her criminal past. We see a softer side to Tiffany and as a viewer we warm to her just like Stacey. It’s here I realize that I can’t help but be influenced by Stacey’s perspectives. She relays back to the camera about her own opinions of the inmates which don’t distant themselves too far from my own.

We see the girls being punished as a whole instead of individually also, teaching them the unfairness of punishing innocent people, such as the victims to their crimes and that they must work as a team to get through the ‘shock’ programme. Even more shockingly, many of the girls admit that prison is easier as we see the girls struggle with military treatment and being wiped from their femininity. The girls resemble boys; they are banned from wearing make up and are almost unrecognizable. As a woman you can’t but relate and feel sorry for them for having that right taken from you, “I feel ugly all the time”.  Its heart wrenching also as we see the girls cry and talk about their issues. These moments are particularly difficult to watch because it creates an argument within your own head. You feel sympathetic but should you feel that way? They’ve committed such terrible crimes and have a debt to pay. We meet Nicole who has been in the programme for 10 months after being recycled twice due to anger management problems. ‘Recycling’ is when the inmates are kept in the ‘shock’ programme for longer.

Stacey also gives interviews with the staff of the prison including the therapists and sergeants, gaining access to how they try and help the girls through the programme through various techniques. Whether it be wearing a sash for positive attitude or shouting in their face. The footage of the girls therapy sessions reveal more about the main characters troubling pasts and issues.  We witness the characters break down and Stacey’s reactions to their tragic stories. It arouses sadness within the viewers, the inmates and Stacey alike, as we hear sordid stories of abuse and addiction the girls have been summoned to their entire lives. Shots of the girls sat in matching outfits, matching hairstyles and matching bleak expressions reinforce their loss of individuality and how they are all in the ‘shock’ programme together. The documentary has a nice balance between documenting the day to day running of the boot camp as well as interviews with all the characters involved. The one-to-one encounters with staff and inmates offer a unique insight into how the US penal system is working for the young women.

Visually the documentary isn’t as filmic compared to ’12 year old lifer’ but that’s probably due to a lower budget. It’s incomparable. Nonetheless, the rough, hand held shots and matter of fact images are effective. It reinforces a, ‘this is how it is’ sort of attitude and feel. The filmmakers have captured the girls and the prison as true to life as I think anyone possible can and that’s what I appreciate. I particularly liked the one to one interviews between Stacey and the girls too, less formal and more natural compared to the more structured interviews in ’12 year old lifer’. Most of the interviews are off the cuff. Something catches their attention and the cameramen and producers decide to carry on filming whilst Stacey carrie out the interviews. The documentary captures what’s unraveling before them, making it feel utterly organic and real. Interviews with the girls also offers the chance to get to know some of the ones Stacey took a liking too and become more involved in their journey as the programme progresses.

One fault with the documentary would be that I wish the names of the people being interviewed were clarified through subtitles. Sometimes it’s difficult to catch all the information being given by the video and audio alone so titles and text would have been helpful, like those seen in ’12 year old lifer’. Overall, I like how earthy and organic the documentary is as if their just keeping the cameras rolling as Stacey gets to know the girls and staff in the only female boot camp in the U.S.

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