Parpan Column: Riverside jail reality show isn’t all bad

(Credit: MSNBC)
(Credit: MSNBC)

There was a moment during Saturday’s premiere of MSNBC’s “Lockup Extended Stay: Long Island,” the new reality series filmed at the Suffolk County Jail in Riverside, that offered a truly unique look at the inside of our local jail.

Two inmates — a woman facing a relatively short prison sentence and a man staring at life inside a tin can — are pronounced man and wife by Southampton Town Clerk Sunday Schiermeier, who announces, “You may now kiss the bride.”

After a few seconds of rare intimacy — they met only three months earlier inside that same jail — they are told to return to their stations.

They are now man and wife, but they’re inmates above all else.

It’s this moment that best illustrates why “Lockup” makes for great television, even if it merely exploits the unique circumstances of some of the jail’s more colorful inmates and will do little to improve their overall place in society.

A more informative and better intended show might feature inmates after they are released from prison or cover subjects dealing with Long Island’s heroin problem away from our jail. Like most reality shows, the primary goal of “Lockup” is to entertain.

I went into this review fully expecting to blast the show for its exploitative nature, but found it to still have enough heart and journalistic value to keep me interested. I will watch again.

One of the chief concerns we heard from readers since first reporting that the show would air this week was that it would portray Riverhead in a negative light. Of course, since it’s a show about life in jail, it’s hard to imagine it serving as a booster for tourism. The show is not meant to be a reflection on the people of Riverhead or Suffolk County, but rather a small portion of the prison population.

After one episode, “Lockup” has told us nothing about Riverhead or Riverside, except for a few brief glimpses of landmarks like the Suffolk Theater or the water tower. In fact, none of the three inmates featured in the first episode, “Sufferin’ County,” is from the East End.

Aisha Figueroa, the bride in the first episode, was arrested by police in Huntington for a robbery in which she allegedly fired a gun at a gas station attendant. She wed Chris Colbert of the Bronx, who is described as a high-ranking Bloods gang member awaiting trial for second-degree murder. The concept of Ms. Figueroa marrying someone who may never spend another day on the outside is explored in the episode, but not at any great depth.

Instead, we’re shown the actual ceremony and told how prison weddings work. Ms. Figueroa’s mother, one of the two witnesses permitted under jail rules, is shown being asked to remove her jewelry and even her bra before entering the jail.

“It has underwire in it,” corrections officer Neil MacDonald explains. “In here, that’s a dangerous instrument.”

Perhaps the episode’s most poignant moments involve the third featured inmate, Tyerance Mickey of the Bronx. Also a Bloods gang member, we’re told he’s in jail for charges of robbery, assault and murder — online prison records show he was actually convicted of robbery, assault and criminal possession of a weapon — and was awaiting transport to an upstate prison. He was originally being held on Riker’s Island, but was moved to Suffolk County because he was involved in too many fights there. He said he’s been a gang member since he was 10 years old.

In the episode, Mr. Mickey, a violent criminal who has spent half his life in a jail cell, is shown during a rare visit with his wife’s children, encouraging them to stay out of trouble. In another scene, he tells young gang members to get out of the lifestyle before it’s too late.

Online prison records show that both Mr. Mickey and Ms. Figueroa have since been shipped to upstate prisons. She’s eligible for parole next year. He’s facing between four and 10 years.

In a perfect world, we’d get more of these characters. But this is the television world and the trailer for the show promises to give us new characters and more violence in the coming weeks.

At least this week’s episode provided us with a handful of tender moments and a few glimpses of the harsh reality of prison. Will Mr. Mickey abandon his gang member past for a better life, as he promises? Will Ms. Figueroa and Mr. Colbert ever spend time together in a world where their meetings aren’t shared with guards?

We’ll probably never know what becomes of any of these three inmates, but their present circumstances tell us a happy ending isn’t likely.

The first episode may have been a pleasant surprise, but that’s television, not real life.

grantCMYKThe author is the executive editor of Times Review Media Group. He can be reached at [email protected] or 631-354-8046.