YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Q & A

MITCHELL KOSS : Jailhouse Views


"L.A. Behind Bars," an hourlong documentary airing Friday on the Arts & Entertainment Network, takes a penetrating look at life under the roof of the world's largest jailhouse--the Los Angeles County Men's Central Jail--where 165 deputy sheriffs guard 6,000 inmates awaiting trial.

Over a threemonth period in 1991, producer Mitchell Koss brought cameras into the facility to record the routines of inmates and guards who face the threat of violence on a daily basis. The documentary, made with "a six-figure" budget and originally scheduled to air on TBS' "National Geographic Explorer," was pulled by senior management at the National Geographic Society because it was deemed unsuitable for family viewing. It now is running under the banner of A&E's "Investigative Reports" series. Koss reflects on some of his experiences with Times Staff Writer John L. Mitchell.

What was the initial response from county officials to your request to allow you to bring cameras into the jail?

They were reluctant at first, even skeptical about the idea. No one had ever been allowed to film a documentary in the jails before. "We don't let people in here to film," they told me. I explained what I wanted to do, to allow the camera to be an eye observing life behind bars. I showed them some of the things I wanted to do. I wanted as fair and objective a view as possible. Basically I wanted it to be just what the camera saw with little narration. Finally, they went for the idea and then we had to get permission from public defenders because most of the people there are still awaiting trial. Once the permission was granted, the overall cooperation was just amazing.

What was it like going into the jail for the first time?

You walk in and then boom you hear the doors lock behind you. You realize it's just you, some unarmed deputies and thousands of inmates. Some of them are violent. It's tense, but it's not like covering a war zone, lying in the mud hearing bullets flying overhead. There is a different feeling of menace. You walk into this place and you are hit by the numbers. This is the largest jail in the world. A quarter of a million people a year walk through these doors. It's very sobering to be there on a Monday and watch some 1,500 people come in in street clothes and within a few hours they are wearing jail blues. We were there filming for 30 or 40 days over a threemonth period, and in that time the numbers just seemed awesome.

What impressed you the most?

When I walked in, one of the first things I saw was a guy being wheeled away on a stretcher who had had his throat cut. Inside, there's the constant feeling that at any moment something could go wrong even when everything seems calm. The deputies tell you, "We only control (the inmates) because they let us control them." The mood is set by the potential for violence. And there is a sense that everyone inside becomes a little more violent simply because they are there. We focused a little on a man, a manager at a Pizza Hut, who was brought to the jail for a traffic violation, driving on a suspended license. He's your ordinary citizen whose life gets turned around by the place. He's not a gang member or a sociopath. But the more he stays inside, the more angry and violent he becomes. The longer you are in, the more violent thoughts you have. It's contagious.

Most of the inmates on camera seem to welcome the opportunity to be interviewed. Did any resent your presence?

As a filmmaker you want to feel like a fly on the wall, but you can't do that in a jail environment because you're completely noticeable. Everyone is immediately aware the moment you come on the floor with a camera. You can't pretend you're not there. And if you try to pretend, it's annoying to the inmates. You are in their home taking pictures. Whenever I came on a floor, I would go right up to them and acknowledge that I was there making a film. Ask them if they wanted to make a comment. I showed them respect and I didn't have a problem.

How were the living conditions?

Actually, it is a very well-run jail. But as a journalist I went through looking at ... Was it crowded? How's the food? And are the deputies treating the people OK? It got to be like a checklist certifying a hotel. Suddenly, I felt I was asking the wrong questions. The issue has to do with how society deals with jails. And what should be done about crime.

The film depicts the influence of gangs in the jail. At one point, one of the officers describes the deputies as "the baddest gang in the jail." Do you feel that deputies, in order to maintain control, have to adopt some of the characteristics of the gangs?

The reality is that everyone is doing time under the same roof, and the reality is that deputies are just another unarmed group. The only way you can survive is to be tough. They are able to exert control, because they are better organized and have more resources than anyone else.

Have there been any repercussions from the film?

When we finished, I got a subpoena from a defense attorney for one of the inmates at the end of the film. The inmate was facing a death penalty hearing (for a double murder). The attorney asked me to come down and show the film to the jury. He said it might help if they saw that he did something positive. I sat in the courthouse all morning. Not wanting to be there. I wanted the film to be significant, but I didn't want someone's life to be hanging in the balance based on what I had done. Finally, I was called in. I said a few words and just rolled the film.

Do you think you might have influenced the decision.

The lawyer said the film was one of the reasons why he's not on death row. It was a powerful moment, but I don't know what the lesson was. There aren't any easy answers.

"L.A. Behind Bars" airs Friday at 6 and 10 p.m. on A&E.

Los Angeles Times Articles