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Documentaries & Non-Fiction Series

Justice, USA Week 2: EP Marshall Goldberg and Showrunner Randy Ferrell Talk Mental Health, the Mechanics of the Series and More 

Justice, USA Week 2: EP Marshall Goldberg and Showrunner Randy Ferrell Talk Mental Health, the Mechanics of the Series and More
Wide shot of the cell blocks in the Maximum Correctional Center

Warning: Major spoilers ahead. If you haven’t watched episodes three and four, turn back now.

In this week’s episodes, we meet a few new inmates, revisit some cases, wrap up with a few of the people we’ve been following and speak more with EP Marshall Goldberg and showrunner Randy Ferrell.

ADDICTION

Sheriff Daron Hall knows drugs are a problem in society at large and in his jails. While a lot of people seem to be self medicating, he wonders if jail is the best option for them to get addiction treatment.

Katie Jones and Josh Arthur: Both are addicted to heroin. The expired tags on their car lead to the traffic stop, but they’re arrested because Katie has an outstanding warrant and in addition to the tags, Josh also has drug paraphernalia. Katie detoxes in jail, but her parole is revoked; she has to stay in jail for another six months. After being in jail for one day, Josh is released on bail, but struggles to get clean and stay clean.

Antonio Amos: He’s homeless with no resources. He knowingly violated his parole because he has no money to pay the fines. He says heroin is the only thing that helps him. After four days in jail, his judge requests a private attorney to represent Antonio.

Prestina Clark-Wilcox: An addict, she admits to failing to protect her 3 year-old daughter who died from acute Fentanyl intoxication. Still grieving the loss of her child, she takes a plea deal for eight years, although Prestina thinks it’s a long time to serve for an accident.

MENTAL HEALTH

Sheriff Daron Hall acknowledges that 30% of inmates are diagnosed mentally ill upon arrival and explains that most foreign countries wouldn’t send someone to jail for being mentally ill. But the stigma and lack of education and awareness around issues of mental health results in different standards here.

Keith Thomas sits on his air mattress in an temporary housing situation. Photo Credit: MAX

Keith Thomas: We met him in episode two and he’s found an incredibly empathetic and effective attorney in public defender Lindsay Graham. She acknowledges that the system is ableist, classist, racist. Despite that, she’s still trying to make a difference and knows how to go about getting her clients the help they need.

Lindsay also manages to get the body cam footage of Keith’s arrest and wants to watch it with him. While I’m glad the producers included it, it is incredibly hard to watch. I asked why they made that choice.

TV GOODNESS: I really wanted to ask you guys about Keith Thomas, who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and called the cops for help. We get to see the body cam footage of his arrest, which is shocking and upsetting. Why did you think that was important to show?

Randy Ferrell: “There’s three moments in the series that we felt very, very intensely in the moment of filming, and that was one of them, when Keith sees his own body camera footage. The reason it’s important is because he’s telling us this story, and we’re seeing somebody who obviously has struggled with their mental health.

His lawyer, I must say is one of [the] top of the line public defenders. Lindsay’s an amazing person. We get to watch her walk this delicate line of, ‘Hey, I’m trying to help you with your case. We’ve uncovered this evidence.’ And the fact that she even went so far as to get that evidence speaks to her commitment to his case.

So I think it’s important that the audience see what Keith himself was experiencing. You cannot separate his situation where he has these issues and that there’s actually body camera footage from the fact that he got to see it and the impact that that had on him.

It’s just important to show the authentic, accurate, and truthful way that things happen. So it was pretty simple in terms of showing that. As upsetting as it may be and as triggering as it may be for some people, it’s very important to show the reality of these individuals circumstances.”

Marshall Goldberg: “So many of the people who enter the system are mentally ill. We talk about mental illness and it becomes abstract pretty quickly. But you see what it means for somebody to be mentally ill.

Zach [Brill; from episodes 1 & 2] talks about being schizophrenic, but we don’t see it really with Keith. We see it there. And then you realize that the system just isn’t meant for somebody like that. He needs to be treated somewhere else, some other way.”

JUVENILE JUSTICE PART 2

Caleb Williams: He’s back in jail for behavior from months ago. The police have a warrant and find a gun in his car, so he gets another mandatory 30-day hold. When Caleb takes a plea, both his mom and his PO are shocked. But Caleb seems adamant about getting out of the juvenile detention center, so I can’t say I’m surprised. Now in DCS custody, it will be up to a judge to say when he’s done his time.

Tristan Williams plays basketball. Photo Credit: MAX

Tristan Williams: Because his charges of criminal homicide and attempted murder were so serious, it looked like he might be transferred to the adult system. But with new evidence discovered that the other children in the car had been planning to rob him, his case remains in the juvenile system. If he stays out of trouble, Tristan should be released in 4 to 5 months and have the opportunity to go work for his uncle in California.

Diamond Lewis: Even though Diamond wasn’t the shooter and thought she and her friend were only committing a robbery to get money for food, she is also held criminally liable for the death. According to the letter of the law in Tennessee, Judge Sheila Calloway has to transfer her to the adult system. Feeling trapped and worried about going to jail for most of her life if she’s found guilty at trial, Diamond decides to take a plea deal for 25 years. Considering the fact that both her parents and two older siblings all went to jail and her brother Shubie was killed at age 15, Diamond feels she never had any good influences around her.

THE MECHANICS OF SHOOTING THIS SERIES

We’ve only got two more episodes to go before we wrap up season one. If you’ve been watching the series and wondering, like I was, how the producers and crew were allowed so much behind-the-scenes access and how they got everyone to speak so candidly, I asked Marshall and Randy those questions.

TV GOODNESS: Your access is very impressive. I’m wondering what went into gaining people’s trust to tell their stories, especially those who were incarcerated.

Randy Ferrell: “A lot of it was the sincerity of our approach. A lot of the people you meet in the series we met when they came through those Sally port doors, is what they call ’em. These steel doors, they open and we’re right there with our cameras and our boom.

Marshall and myself, we would approach people and say, ‘Hey, here’s what we’re doing.’ We were honest about it and truthful, and I’d like to think that we’re two individuals with a lot of integrity. And that shows. I think in the series you can see that.

So we just told people, ‘Look, we want to know what it’s like to be in your shoes, to go through this system, and we just want to follow you.’ And there were people who said, no, of course. But more often than not, people wanted to be heard and they wanted people to understand what it felt like, even if it was the worst moment they were experiencing ever in their lives.”

Marshall Goldberg: “When it came to some of the deputies or the lawyers, public officials — you go through life and you get beaten down and you lose touch with why you enter a profession to begin with. I think we got them back in touch with why they chose to do what they wanted to do to begin with. That was good.”

TV GOODNESS: You also talk about how you filmed for one year. How did you decide which stories to include? And then how did you go about crafting the episodes and was it always your intention to do six episodes or was that up in the air up?

Marshall Goldberg: “We had budget for six episodes, so we knew it was going to be six. The most interesting thing, I mean, just to answer that question really specifically, we ended up with 400 hours of footage and that had to be reduced to six 50-minute episodes.

I thought that the stories would last maybe two months of filming and then we’d have to go and find another batch of defendants and another batch. But we ended up staying with the original group.

They all had interesting stories. We came around to realize that had we grabbed any group of 12 people and you stay with them for seven months, you’re probably going to have equally interesting stories, different stories, but people’s lives are interesting if they open themselves up.”

Randy Ferrell: “And specifically, it was obviously a ton of conversations. Our footprint here in Nashville when we were actually living here [was] seven months, but we would come back and follow up with people. That’s why we say year because some of these people, I mean we technically follow for even longer.

But the decision-making process went something like this: we would meet people, we would go back to our office in Nashville and put faces on the wall and have conversations about people. It’s a little tricky because you have no idea what’s going to happen to them. They don’t even know.

But you meet these people and you get a sense of who they are. We followed a lot of people for at least a couple of instances. And then over time, we were like, ‘Yeah, we really want to see what happens.’

I mean, it was purely human interest. Some people, their cases got adjudicated quickly and others didn’t. The twists and the turns and the ebbs and flows. Like I said, it’s the human condition revealed. That’s what this is.

What I’ve been telling people is we’re looking at the criminal justice system, but the criminal justice system is comprised of people on all sides, not just defendants; judges, lawyers, sheriff’s deputies. I think the real strength of our series is that we really bring a level of humanity to all of these people.”

Interview edited for space and clarity.

If you missed my interview from week one, click here. To read the final interview with Marshall and Randy, I’ll see you back here next week.

Episodes five and six of Justice, USA premiere Thursday on MAX.

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