Marcos Bretón

What does ‘Jailbirds’ really cost? A lot more than a Netflix subscription

The Netflix series “Jailbirds” first aired last month and evoked in me the nausea of eating a bad clam. The bad taste of the documentary series lingers, partly because of larger issues about the jail.

I didn’t write anything about it then, but like other voices in this publication and beyond, I shook my head at how Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones could green-light a program that would reflect so negatively on Sacramento.

With Jones-approved cameras rolling, we saw a pathetic picture of human desperation among some inmates housed right in downtown Sacramento. Who could forget the scenes of some prisoners trying to “hook up” with each other by first communicating through the toilets in their cells?

Actually, I wish I could forget it.

The bigger story here – beyond this stupid, exploitative show and the irresponsible sheriff who made it happen – is how the Main Jail on I Street is a canker sore on the city of Sacramento. And how the incarceration of county inmates is a money pit devouring millions of taxpayer dollars, with no end in sight.


It’s a story of how lawsuits directed at the cruelty of the county’s incarceration system creates a perpetual budget depression in county government. Just last week, elected officials in the city debated how to spend a more than $50 million windfall created by increased revenues and an increased city sales tax.

Well, the county has increased revenues too. According to the proposed 2019-2020 budget that county supervisors will review next week, the county’s $4.4 billion budget is lifted by a $17.4 million increase in discretionary revenue, a $29.9 million increase in semi-discretionary revenue, an $11.8 million increase in reimbursements and a net $27.3 million increase in federal, state and local revenue – plus other revenue increases.

But instead of considering more investments in successful programs such as Black Child Legacy Campaign, which decreased the deaths of African American babies in Sacramento, the county is belt tightening. Instead of extending the county’s Healthy Partners program to offer more healthcare options to the medically indigent, County Executive Nav Gill is recommending more of your tax dollars for the Main Jail.

Why? Largely because of extraordinary financial obligations related to the Main Jail and its Elk Grove counterpart, Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center. And because the entire sheriff’s department budget dwarfs everything else.

The county will weigh spending more than $30 million in its jails to satisfy lawsuits alleging inhumane conditions among county inmates. The county will pay $7.8 million this year and more in coming years for a total 15 more years to satisfy a $98 million lawsuit brought by the UC Davis system. The county shortchanged the health system for services provided to county prisoners and the indigent.

The county is already on the hook for a $98 million expansion at RCCC. Not included in the budget, but still huge payouts or potential payouts, have been a litany of lawsuits filed against the sheriff’s department for: deaths in custody at the jail; a protester suing after getting hit by a sheriff’s car; and a fatal shooting by deputies of a mentally ill man in Citrus Heights, among others.

Meanwhile, the sheriff’s department budget looks to grow to $275 million from $255 million, despite the fact that Jones clashed with supervisors last year after he locked the county inspector general out of his buildings. Jones didn’t like a critical review of a fatal shooting compiled by the IG. Supervisors had no power to stop Jones unilaterally shutting down a review of his office.

The public was told that the only power supervisors had over Jones was the power of the purse. Yeah, the proposed budget filed by Gill explodes the myth that supervisors have any power over the sheriff.

And you know what? Jones knows this. Why should he care if people are mad at him over the “Jailbirds” show? In a way, the program is a middle finger directed at anyone who criticizes him. Think about it: The county is paying millions to deal with allegations in jail – taxpayers dollars – and he allows a Netflix crew to come in and record it for all the world to see.

Two women incarcerated at the Sacramento County Main Jail are seen in the Netflix series “Jailbirds,” which premiered on Friday, May 10, 2019. 44 Blue Productions

In response to the production and airing of “Jailbirds,” Supervisor Phil Serna said, “We shouldn’t have to legislate common sense, especially when it comes to something as serious as the county’s correctional system.” He continued: “The sheriff had sole discretion of content, and as it turned out, the content is gross, offensive and works at cross-purposes with the promotion of our county. It’s why I’ve already directed the (county executive) to bring back to the board a policy to see that this never happens again.”

But the problem extends beyond the county. The jail has a horrible ripple effect on downtown. The Main Jail is right in the heart of Sacramento. When a prisoner is arrested in the farthest reaches of the county, that prisoner is then brought there and turned loose in the city’s core.

You see them dropping their litter in Cesar Chavez Park, or living among the homeless. The problems of other parts of the county are dumped on the doorstep of downtown.

If Jones’ apparent disregard makes you ill, or if you disagree with Gill’s misplaced budget priorities, the Board of Supervisors meets at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday at 700 H St. – across the street from the jail. Netflix could shoot its next shock doc produced and directed by Sheriff Scott Jones: “Jail Fail.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee

Marcos Breton writes commentary and opinion columns about the Sacramento region, California and the United States. He’s been a California newspaperman for more than 30 years. He’s a graduate of San Jose State University, a voter for the Baseball Hall of Fame and the proud son of Mexican immigrants.