We're catching up with the new reality series Parole Diaries a few weeks after its premiere. But since it’s on cable (new episodes air at 10 p.m. Wednesdays on TV One), there’ll be plenty of reruns.
And that’s good, because this show, which was shot in Indianapolis from February to May, is both informative and entertaining.
Parole Diaries follows nine Indiana Department of Correction parole officers as they handle some of their many, many clients. In the first episode, we met Denise Jackson, Gerald Carter and John Taylor as they worked on cases involving a sex offender, a drug addict convicted of theft and a man who’d spent seven years in prison for his part in a drug heist gone wrong.
In following episodes (12 have been ordered for the first season), we met more of the players in what executive producer Jonathan Towers calls “the land of second chances.”
“The parole system is a world that even pretty educated Americans do not understand,” Towers, whose company, Towers Productions, created the show, said in a phone interview. “What I want people to understand is that it’s an important part of our society, that it’s about helping people reintegrate into society. If we don’t do this well, we’re causing ourselves all kinds of problems.”
Here’s more of our conversation.
NUVO: How did you end up doing this in Indianapolis?
Towers: We did a documentary for Discovery Channel where we embedded inside the Pendleton penitentiary and through that project got to know (chief communications officer) Doug Garrison and the other folks in the department. It went really well, and they were happy about how we had portrayed the challenges of running a penitentiary and the way we portrayed the work of the officers. This was in ’08. In conversations about what other things we might do, it was suggested that no one’s ever really shown the inside world of parole.
We’ve done hundreds of hours of law enforcement programming. We produced the American Justice series for A&E, the Gangland series for History. We came to Indianapolis to get to know the parole officers, and they were remarkable.
NUVO: In the press release, the show is called a “docudrama,” rather than “reality.”
Towers: People throw all kinds of phrases around. You can label it as you see fit. The strategy here was to get to the heart of what happens between a parole officer and a parolee.
NUVO: Was it hard to get people to agree to be on camera?
Towers: No. It’s what we do. We have found that in the world of law enforcement, people want their stories to be told. When people are at moments of crisis in their life, they’re really interested in people telling that story. That’s been our experience for nearly a quarter of a century.
NUVO: It’s astounding to me that a paroled sex offender would agree to be on TV.
Towers: It’s about trust, and it’s about people believing you’re going to tell their story accurately and fairly. Here’s what I’d say about the sex offender theme, which comes up throughout the whole series: The public is aware but doesn’t know enough about how sex offenders are treated — both from the point of view of the parole officer and the parolee. Both sides want people to understand what they go through.
NUVO: What was the weirdest thing you saw?
Towers: One of the most unusual realizations was that people who are paroled come from every walk of life. In one episode, there’s a woman who was vice president of a bank. This woman got herself in a whole mess of trouble for prescription fraud. My sense of that as a producer is, that could be any of us. That’s why I like doing this kind of television. You’re constantly humbled. You realize the things that happen in life could happen to anybody.
NUVO: Again, that’s someone you wouldn’t expect to grant permission to be shown on TV.
Towers: Don’t forget: These are people who are showing the world that they’re making their best effort to re-enter society. This is the story of what parole is. They’re saying, “Yeah, I messed up. But look at me: I’m doing what I’ve been asked to do. And if I play by these rules, I’m going to make it.”
See: a trailer for Parole Diaries