Ever since appearing as one of the fashion-obsessed consumers in BBC Three’s 2009 documentary Blood, Sweat and T-Shirts, Stacey Dooley has become an unlikely host of factual programmes for the channel.
In the last three years we’ve seen her explore the worlds of child soldiers, sex traffickers as well as how the tourism trade in poor countries affected its people and now she’s back with a three part series set in America.
Stacey’s first port of call is the Lakeview Shock Incarceration Facility in Upstart New York which is the only military-style bootcamp for young offenders in America that accepts female inmates. The aim of the facility is to use military discipline in order to change the behaviour of prisoners and reprogram offenders so they become better citizens when they’re released into society once again. The scheme is used as an option for offenders who don’t want to serve three years in jail however if they fail to improve during the six month period at Lakeview they are sent to regular prison to carry out their full sentence.
When she arrives Stacey instantly notes that all the female inmates have the majority of their hair shaved off while they are also not allowed to wear make-up essentially making them look like boys. She later discovers that the reason that their hair is shaved is that they only get 3 minutes per day to shower with most activities, such as eating and sleeping, being strictly timed. It is hoped that this routine will help the girls’ self-discipline as well as detox them as most of them had problems with drink and drug addictions. Over the course of the documentary Stacey gets to know the girls better starting off with Tiffany who ended up in the institution after being convicted on a gun charge. The programme sees Tiffany struggling with the routine inside the facility as she is punished for breaking the rules during breakfast and is forced to stand up to eat. Tiffany, like many of the girls Stacey talks to, feels that she would be better off in prison but later admits that she needs the structure after a life spent dealing drugs and exploiting those she knew to have addiction problems.
Stacey also meets another new recruit in Brown who admitted to Stacey that she committed many burglaries simply because she was bored rather than particularly needing any money. Brown is one of the girls in Lakeview who is particularly struggling to keep up with the exercise programme and occasionally refuses outright to participate in group activity. One officer tells Stacey that a lot of the former inmates send him cards and believes Brown, who he describes as his personal project, will be sending him a card in a year’s time.
As Brown’s attitude continues to be an issue she is forced to wear a horrible bright yellow sash with the words ‘Positive Attitude’ printed on the side. Lakeview also attempts to stop the girls fighting by putting on confrontation sessions in which the inmates can air their grievances with each other. With Brown in the hot seat we hear from a lot of girls who tell her that she doesn’t push herself, is very rude and that she often rolls her eyes in a sarcastic manner while even one of the guards tells her that he’s sick of dealing with her nonsense. These revelations cause Brown to disclose information about herself namely that she was sexually abused at a young age and has used criminal activity as a way of dealing with these issues. There is then a rather sweet scene where a lot of Brown’s fellow inmates offer to support her and in her final conversation with Stacey you can tell that she wants to turn a corner.
Stacey’s next encounter is with some of the girls that are ready to graduate from Lakeview and in particular connects with Hartman who was arrested after drink driving with her son and daughter in the car. Hartman’s experience at Lakeview has been a tough one as she has been kept back, or recycled, twice and has now been at the facility for ten months but with graduation on the horizon it looks like she’s finally going to leave. Like with Brown, Hartman also has her own harrowing tale to tell this time about how her parents influenced her downfall with her biker father going to jail and mother taking her with her on robberies. As Hartman’s anger management issues flare up again just before graduation it is clear that she is her own worst enemy however a jubilant Stacey is glad to see Hartman leave Lakeview.
To present a balanced viewpoint Stacey makes a point of going to Bayview Medium Security Prison in Downton Manhattan a place where the girls at Lakeview would end up if they hadn’t opted to carry out the programme. Here Stacey is guided around by Danielle who tells her off the sexual activity that some inmates get up to in the toilets as well as how you have to make you stick up for yourself while you’re inside. The comparison to the institution that Stacey has been in previously is immense as the women in prison are given a lot more freedom as they have both their own kitchen and a rooftop recreation centre while there is no compulsory exercise to take. It seems for girls like Danielle prison has been a positive influence as she has studied hard and is ready to start her Bachelor’s Degree on release. However not everybody has thrived in prison as Stacey also meets Offley who has been in prison several times and who is incredibly confrontational when the camera is in her face. Stacey is shocked when she learns that Offley will be out of prison in a few weeks’ time and you get the impression that in her case Lakeview would’ve been a better option.
While Girls Behind Bars isn’t as moving or eye-opening as some of the documentaries that Stacey has previously fronted it is still interesting to see the options that are open to young female prisoners. I enjoyed how we got to see the balance between prison life and life at Lakeview with the latter being a lot more free however for some of the prisoners the regime of the latter may have been more beneficial. From seeing the senior members of the platoon it is clear that the six month programme has changed them for the better and you hope that they don’t return to their lives of crime but at the same time you fear that some of them will. In some ways I feel that Stacey is a good guide to this world mainly because she is a relatable presence who reacts in a similar way that most of us would when confronted with the situations in the documentary. At the same time I occasionally found her facial expressions slightly off-putting especially when the camera focused on her during Hartman’s heart-breaking account of life with her parents. I also worried that her presence at Lakeview, accompanied presumably by a full camera crew, would disrupt the regimented routine that the girls had become accustomed to since arriving at the facility.
Overall Girls Behind Bars is a good start to Stacey’s USA series as it opens up a world that most of us would be unfamiliar with. The subjects that she has chosen to interview all provided a unique insight into life at Lakeview while the visit to the prison also offered up some interesting comparisons. Though I found her irritating at times Stacey was ultimately an interesting host and I find myself actually looking forward to see what the next two programmes have in store.
Did you enjoy Girls Behind Bars? What did you think of Stacey’s interviewing style? Leave your comments below….