Back in orange

Review: Jailbirds humanizes Sacramento women behind bars

Megan “Monster” Hawkins in <i>Jailbirds</i>.

Megan “Monster” Hawkins in Jailbirds.

Watch Jailbirds on Netflix.

Aside from the people directly affected by the crimes, the audience that’s going to be most provoked by Jailbirds is Sacramento.

The Netflix series, which premiered in May, is getting national buzz and customary “where are they now?” articles. It follows mostly female inmates at Sacramento County Main Jail and at the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center, documenting their daily struggles and dreams of freedom. Through shots of the Tower Bridge, Cesar Chavez Plaza and other familiar places, the show constantly reminds us of what’s obvious and overlooked: that the women in these Orange Is the New Black, reality-TV moments are human, and they’re our neighbors.

It starts at intake: Yasmin Sundermeyer is on $100,000 bail for an alleged carjacking. The 19-year-old is distraught and worried about missing work. She has a kid and wants to be a veterinarian.

The first of six episodes introduces a cast of women who call the jail’s seventh floor home. There’s Megan “Monster” Hawkins, a former New York tattoo parlor owner and drug dealer who wants to turn her life around. There’s Rebecca Temme, or “Baby Girl”, who was facing a life sentence for murder, and trying to get out of isolation to join her half-sister in the jail. Court records show she was convicted on May 10.

Many of the inmates, including Tayler Coatney, grapple with guilt. The 19-year-old was convicted of burglary in connection with a gruesome home invasion in South Sacramento that left three dead in 2016.

The show offers some insight into jail life: the uncomfortable intake process where new inmates are forced to strip down and bend over in front of an officer; the confusing “jail math” used to calculate sentences; jargon such as “messy” and “out-of-pocket,” used to describe problematic inmates who are drama-happy and out of line.

Mostly, Jailbirds dishes personal drama. Some of the women fall in love with male inmates on other floors, chatting through the toilet. If you empty all the water from the bowl, they explain, you’re able to communicate by yelling through the pipes, and even send notes and treats through a string-and-spoon process called “fishing.” To hang up, flush.

Others argue and scuffle. An early conflict arises when an inmate named “Drea” snitches on Hawkins and her cellmate for cooking up “pruno,” an alcoholic drink made from fermented fruit.

Coatney connects with an inmate who calls himself “A1.” He’s facing domestic violence charges for assaulting Hawkins, his ex. Two inmates get married in the jail’s basement, and several are freed by the end of the show.

It’s tempting to say that the latter half of the season gets bogged down by too many petty conflicts. But it’s also another opportunity to empathize. While incarcerated, these women only have each other, and the drama is not unlike what you’d see on the outside.

There are moments, particularly with Coatney, that will give you pause. If an accused accomplice to murder has her own Netflix series, what do the victims deserve?

Jailbirds makes the most sense if everyone deserves to be humanized. Some of the most powerful scenes show the women in freedom—walking down I Street, hopeful and out of “oranges,” slang for jail clothes.

Hawkins recently made headlines for returning to jail. She’s faces charges including for identity and vehicle theft. Like most characters in documentaries and reality TV—and most people who enter the criminal justice system—their stories don’t end when the credits roll.