Sheriff’s officers were paid thousands in overtime working on Netflix reality show ‘Jailbirds’

Last month, a Sacramento County sheriff’s spokeswoman said that when it came to filming the Netflix series “Jailbirds,” no money changed hands between the reality TV production company and the sheriff’s office.

“No money was exchanged on any level,” Sgt. Tess Deterding told The Bee.

Turns out, that’s not true.

A county invoice shows that the Burbank production company, 44 Blue Productions, was billed $42,211 to reimburse the sheriff for 482 hours of overtime during filming inside the county’s two jails. The money was billed for “guard” work by deputies and sergeants throughout much of 2018, according to the invoice.

The payout raises more questions about the relationship between Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones and the production company, and the use of a public facility and taxpayer dollars for the sake of entertainment. The six-part series began running in May on Netflix and mostly features female inmates in the downtown Sacramento lockup and the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center in Elk Grove.

A Sacramento Bee investigation published this week found that during filming, deputies closely followed the production crew as tensions between women inside the main downtown jail boiled over into a fight.

A deputy is seen in one clip watching the action unfold as the brawl breaks out. One of the inmates involved in the fight told The Bee the brawl was “damn near staged” since deputies knew tensions were escalating. Katrina Haslam, a 25-year-old inmate seen being reprimanded on the show for her role in the fight, said that all the cell doors had popped open at the same time – something she alleges rarely happens.

At least four inmates who appeared on the show said deputies closely watched the producers film their scenes, which included inmates making contraband and violating other jail policies. One inmate said “Jailbirds” producers promised her she would not be punished for violations that appeared on camera. Several were, in fact, punished for breaking the rules.

The sheriff department’s contract with 44 Blue Productions says the producers agreed to reimburse the county $83 per hour per deputy; $96 per hour for a sergeant – if the production required “additional security” during filming. The Nov. 20, 2018, invoice from Jones’ office requests payment “for guard services provided by Sacramento County Sheriff’s Staff.”

The invoice shows individual officers were paid hundreds of dollars in overtime for a day’s work monitoring production of “Jailbirds.” The single-day overtime payouts ranged from $66.12 for a deputy who put in 1.5 hours of overtime on July 19, 2018, to $1,341 for a sergeant who claimed 12 hours in overtime guarding the show on July 24, 2018.

Deterding, the sheriff’s department spokeswoman, acknowledged Friday that the contract called for the department “to be reimbursed for costs incurred in the filming (escort deputies). Consistent with that, and after the filming, the Sheriff’s Office sent over the invoice and was reimbursed for the costs.”

“The Sheriff’s Office did not profit from the show, nor did we incur any costs. It was a break even,” she wrote in a text message.

Asked why she claimed “no money was exchanged on any level,” Deterding wrote: “The statement related to money not exchanging hands was specific to anyone profiting.”

Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna said the payout is yet another reason to ban the filming of reality television shows focused on law enforcement agencies in the county’s jurisdiction.

“To think that we have deputies, our jailers, in a correctional system that are going out of their way to spend even more time and energy to accommodate the needs of shock value TV ... when we have so many other priorities is demoralizing,” he said.

The contract also allowed the sheriff’s office to review and approve “Jailbirds” footage before it made it to Netflix.

The contract says the sheriff’s office had up to 20 business days to review both the “rough cut” and the “fine cut” edited footage to ensure it didn’t “contain content that would expose confidential enforcement protocols ... or jeopardize the safety and security of county personnel and or inmate/detainees.”

The controversy over “Jailbirds” comes on the heels of the county recently announcing that this year alone, it has to pay $21.7 million for more jail staff and building upgrades to satisfy lawsuits alleging inhumane conditions at lockups overseen by Sheriff Scott Jones.

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Ryan Sabalow covers environment, general news and enterprise and investigative stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. Before joining The Bee in 2015, he was a reporter at The Auburn Journal, The Redding Record Searchlight and The Indianapolis Star.
Molly Sullivan covers crime, breaking news and police accountability for The Bee. She grew up in Northern California and is an alumna of Chico State.