The ‘Mini-Trump’ and Accused Sexual Harasser Behind Netflix’s New Reality Series ‘Jailbirds’
The sheriff behind a new Netflix docuseries has racked up a sexual-harassment claim, ties to an SPLC-monitored “hate group,” and several lawsuits with human rights groups.
The first scene of Jailbirds, the six-part reality series set in Sacramento County Jail that debuted on Netflix last week, opens on a bleach-blonde woman in a denim jacket, a white lace top, and pink, fuzzy slippers. She’s just arrived at the facility on her first-ever felony charge. As the woman gets her mouth swabbed, a Sacramento Sheriff’s Deputy takes a long squint at her footwear: “Young lady, you seriously did—or allegedly did—all this stuff in those house shoes right there?” The woman grins. “Yeah,” she says. “And, now they’re all dirty.”
The exchange sets the stage for the show’s premise: a seemingly intimate peek behind the bars of an eight-story facility in downtown Sacramento, home to an incarcerated population of roughly 1,900. Much like its fictional predecessor, Orange is the New Black, Jailbirds tries to take viewers “inside” jail, a world they render like an off-kilter version of the outside—one inmate compares it to a “small town” within the first 10 minutes of the premiere; another calls it a “fucked-up family” a few episodes later. The show has no narration, focusing instead on vignettes and interviews with a dozen men and women, many of whom are dating, despite being separated on different floors. A spokesperson for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office said of the series: “This is raw, this is real. This is what goes on behind the walls of the Sacramento County Jail.” She takes the show as a gripping, candid portrait of an unseen world, down to its silly, intimate idiosyncrasies—like pink, fuzzy slippers.
But in interviews with The Daily Beast, activists and representatives from human rights organizations like Disability Rights California, Black Lives Matter Sacramento, and the American Civil Liberties Union criticized the show for its failure to put that intimacy in context. Sacramento is a fertile city for social-justice storytelling—it’s been the setting of some of the most prominent excessive-force incidents in the country—and yet, Jailbirds doesn’t grapple with the legacies of Stephon Clark, Ryan Ellis, Mikel McIntyre, or Jonathan Rose. It doesn’t mention that the facility is currently locked in a class-action lawsuit with Disability Rights California for its failure to address a system that five independent jail health experts characterized as “dangerously understaffed,” “wholly inadequate,” and “operat[ing] in a state of near perpetual emergency.” And it gives scant notice to the man who greenlit the whole project—the guy who oversees Sacramento’s jail system, and who was granted editorial veto power over all of Jailbirds’ footage: current County Sheriff and failed GOP congressional candidate Scott Robert Jones.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, Jailbirds executive producer Rasha Drachkovitch wrote that his company, 44 Blue Productions, is “motivated by stories that focus on redemption and second chances.” But Jones, who has served as Sacramento’s sheriff since 2010, has spent much of his “tough-on-crime” career making sure many inmates don’t have them. A Daily Beast investigation into Jones’ tenure—including an extensive review of public records, legal documents, and news reports (particularly in The Sacramento Bee, which has doggedly covered Jones’ two-decade career)—paints the portrait of an aggressively anti-immigrant, pro-death penalty official who has not only racked up a sexual-harassment allegation (he denies it), financial ties to an SPLC-monitored “hate group,” and a staggering series of lawsuits from criminal justice non-profits, but has staked his entire career against granting the very kind of access that Jailbirds purports to provide. (Netflix would not provide comment.)
Sheriff Scott Jones turned down multiple requests for an interview. A Sheriff’s Department spokesperson agreed to talk on his behalf, but declined to discuss his legal history. “I really just don’t think that that’s very appropriate,” she said, adding that Jones’ track record on transparency had no bearing on the show. “I think it’s really apples and oranges at this point.”
Five months ago, Sheriff Jones took the podium at a packed meeting before the Sacramento Board of Supervisors. Jones, a silver-haired man with the doughy-yet-pointed visage of Ted Cruz, faced the crowd with a scowl. “I’ve been described as rogue,” he barked. “Authoritarian. A dictator. A mini-Trump.” The audience murmured their assent. One guy called out a suggestion: “And racist!” Jones grinned. “Oh yeah, racist. We’ll add that to the list... all because I won’t voluntarily allow independent oversight of the Sheriff Department.”
Jones had come before the board that December afternoon to defend his right to block the Office of the Inspector General, an independent oversight bureau, from investigating officer-involved shootings. The meeting arose in response to the 2017 killing of 32-year-old Mikel McIntyre, who died when three deputies fired 28 rounds at his back on the shoulder of Highway 50. Then-Inspector General Rick Braziel had examined the case and issued a rare reprimand, calling the number of bullets “excessive, unnecessary, and put the community at risk.” Jones responded by revoking Braziel’s access to public records and county facilities—among them, the Sacramento County Jail. “Instead of offering discontent,” Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna said at the gathering, “he barred an agent of the county from doing his job.”
It was not the first time that Jones had taken a hardline stance against oversight and transparency or been the subject of controversy. It has, in many ways, been the defining theme of his career, dating back to his early years in the department.
Jones started with the Sheriff’s Office in 1989, four years out of high school, as a security officer at the then-brand new Sacramento County Main Jail. By 2000, he had been promoted to sergeant, and it was in this role that Jones encountered his first scandal. On January 15, 2004, Jones was suspended, placed on leave, and ordered to appear before a federal grand jury over allegations that he had “improperly used department computers to conduct criminal history checks for some bail bondsmen acquaintances,” according to multiple reports in The Sacramento Bee (Jones maintained his innocence; when the United States Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute, the FBI closed the investigation).
By the time he ran for County Sheriff in 2010, Jones had established himself as a firmly conservative official, once opposing state funding for jails on the grounds that the bill required an additional facility for rehabilitation programs. (“Nobody wants them [the re-entry prisoners] in their backyard,” Jones said in a 2008 Sacramento Bee article. “We all want more money, especially free money, and we all need more bed space. But nobody really wants to sell their soul to get it”). Once in office, he continued the trend. In his first term, Jones offered full-throated support for the death penalty; he called Governor Jerry Brown’s plan to reduce the prison population “asinine,” claiming in a Sacramento Bee editorial that it would force him to “release inmates en masse”; and he dubbed California’s three strikes law—which mandates any defendant convicted of two prior stikes receive a minimum sentence of 25 years to life— “the most effective crime law in the United States.”
Jones had campaigned on promises of transparency, but his department soon started to attract charges of censorship. In 2011, his office got hit with a federal lawsuit from the Human Rights Defense Center over banning the distribution of their publication, Prison Legal News, in his facilities, including the Sacramento County Main Jail. His department had objected to the staples used to hold the publication together, which they deemed contraband. (Jones claimed he had not been briefed on the situation until months after it began). When a federal judge sided with the plaintiff’s claim of “unconstitutional censorship” and ordered an injunction, the Sheriff’s Department settled for $300,000 in taxpayer money.
Jones’ most prominent claim to notoriety came in 2014, when he uploaded a YouTube video addressed to then-President Barack Obama. The viral debut, which garnered nearly 500,000 views, stemmed from an incident that year when an undocumented man opened fire on a deputy’s car, killing two officers and wounding a third. In response, the Sheriff urged Obama to secure the borders, claiming much of California’s undocumented population “commit murders, sexual assaults, and kidnaps,” and drawing a garbled comparison to the Berlin Wall. “An American patriot, Ronald Reagan once told Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down this wall,” Jones said in the video. “Mr. President, I’m asking you to build up that wall.”
The video gave Jones a national profile. He became a public opponent of immigration: going on Fox News to call for the defunding of sanctuary cities, testifying on the subject twice before Congress in February and July of 2015, and appearing at an April 2015 conference called “Hold Their Feet To The Fire,” run by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). Just one year prior, the Southern Poverty Law Center had deemed FAIR an “active hate group” over its alleged mission to keep America a majority-white country by returning to an ethnic quota system. (“As Whites see their power and control over their lives declining,” FAIR founder John Tanton said in 1986, “will they simply go quietly into the night? Or will there be an explosion?”) For the conference, FAIR covered Jones’ travel and hotel fees; his meals and incidentals were reimbursed by the county.
Illegal immigration had become Jones’ rallying cry when, in November of 2015, he announced his bid to oust three-term House Rep. Ami Bera (D) in California’s 7th District. But around that same time, the Sheriff had gotten mired in more legal conflicts of his own.
In 2015, the ACLU sued his department after Jones refused to comply with a public records request over law enforcement’s use of StingRay technology—a controversial surveillance service that tracks nearby cell phone data. (The department later admitted in legal documents to using the technology without obtaining court approval). The following year, in 2016, four female deputies sued the department alleging sexual harassment, discrimination, and workplace retaliation. In court documents, another deputy (not a plaintiff in the case) alleged in a sworn statement that, nearly a decade prior, Jones had inappropriately touched her on 30 different occasions, including massaging her shoulders, kissing her, and unzipping her pants. She was 26 at the time; Jones was married. She provided the court with an email thread from 2008, in which she told Jones she wanted no further contact. He responded that he was sorry that “you no longer respect me nor want to be my friend.” In the legal proceedings, Jones denied the allegations. The department later paid the plaintiffs $3.6 million in damages. That year, Jones lost his congressional election.
Only a few months later, Mikel McIntyre was killed by deputies. The department began getting inundated with public records requests. In a public letter to the Sheriff’s Office dated June of 2017, the Sacramento chapter of Black Lives Matter—led by founder Tanya Faison—demanded police reports, autopsy reports, camera footage, and the names of the deputies involved in the McIntyre shooting and two other use-of-force incidents. Two weeks later, Jones responded to Faison in a private letter obtained by The Daily Beast: “I am in receipt of your letter dated June 28, 2017, wherein you start by making several assertions and end with a series of ten demands,” he wrote. “I wanted to extend you the courtesy to let you know that none of your demanded items will be forthcoming.”
According to Faison, the BLM chapter would not see any of the documents they sought until Inspector General Rick Braziel issued his controversial report, leading to his expulsion and that fiery December meeting before the Sacramento Board of Supervisors. At the gathering that day, activists turned out in droves. During the public comment portion of the session, which Jones reportedly did not stick around for, citizens recounted stories of trying and failing to get answers, records, and accountability from the Sheriff’s Department. In a shocking upset, the Board voted in favor of the people, electing to keep and even extend the role of the Inspector General. But it would not have much effect: by that point, Braziel’s term had already expired. Five months later, a replacement has not yet been named.
In the time since that meeting, Jones has incurred two more lawsuits for withholding information. In January, the ACLU sued Jones for blocking Faison, another BLM organizer, and 28 other citizens from his public Facebook page, which had turned into a forum about oversight and transparency. That same week, the Los Angeles Times and The Sacramento Bee joined forces to sue Jones over his failure to comply with a landmark piece of new legislation: Senate Bill 1421, which was designed to create more transparency surrounding officer-involved shootings. In April, according to the papers’ attorney, Karl Olson, Jones agreed to hand over the requested records by the end of the month. The deadline came and went, Olson said, without any records produced. Same for the second deadline, and the third. Just last week, Jones released the first internal records under the new law. They concerned the 2008 termination of a deputy over a suspicious arrest. In The Sacramento Bee that day, the headline read: “Files show deputy lied.”
A few years back, researchers at the ACLU of Southern California commissioned a state-wide survey about law-enforcement records. Among its findings, the poll revealed that “four out of five voters wanted police to wear body cameras, and voters support giving the public access to that footage.” Sheriff Scott Jones did not like the survey. In August of 2015, he told the San Gabriel Valley Tribune that disclosing body camera footage as public records would deter law enforcement agencies from implementing the technology. He later added: “Body camera footage could become fodder for reality-television shows.”
Jones, of course, has no real objection to reality TV. That same year, he allowed camera crews into Sacramento facilities to shoot a season of the MSNBC series Lockup. His department has regularly appeared on the reality series COPS (a show which has come under heightened scrutiny of its own in the recent podcast Running from COPS). And in early 2018, when Jailbirds’ producers approached Jones about producing a six-part Netflix series in the Sacramento County Jail, he gave it the go-ahead. “In the interest of transparency, he always starts with wanting to say yes to these types of opportunities,” a Sheriff’s spokesperson said. But stories are shaped by those who get to tell them, and at the heart of Jones’ body camera concern was a fear about what might happen when that person wasn’t him.
For its part, Jailbirds tells a compelling story with a significant degree of empathy for its incarcerated stars. Over the course of six episodes, the series touches on the extortion of an unaffordable bail system, and the nefarious bondsmen who bank on it. It mentions (lightly) the inhumane conditions of solitary confinement. And it presents the show’s main characters as complex, three-dimensional human beings—much more than can be said for peer programs like COPS. But to the extent that Jailbirds addresses systemic problems, they are often undercut by an emphasis on personal responsibility (“I got myself into this situation”); sympathetic profiles of well-intentioned prison guards; and a pervasive, that’s-the-way-it-is nihilism couched in dark humor. “One of my friends tattooed his arms so it says ‘Don’t Shoot’ when he puts his hands up,” one inmate laughs over lunch.
“There are so many important stories to tell about the people held in Sacramento County Jail, and Netflix did not tell those stories at all,” said Aaron Fischer, one of the attorneys suing the facility on behalf of Disability Rights California. “They went to the reality-TV show with the most outrageous and salacious stories they could find, rather than telling what I think is a really important story—what it’s like to be in an overcrowded, under-resourced jail that is unable to provide for the basic human needs of thousands of individuals.”
It’s telling that, in the end, Jones liked the series. “It showcases the great work that we do in the Sheriff’s Department in particular, but law enforcement in general,” Jones told TV station KCRA 3. He liked the show for the same reason it fell flat for many others: because of what it left out.