In the Discovery+ series The Program: Prison Detox, viewers go behind bars with prisoners trying to get clean. The show examines a revolutionary pilot program at an Arkansas jail in which qualified inmates get the opportunity to walk free if they complete a three-month drug rehabilitation program.
The series is produced by Big City TV, part of The Content Group. Criminal justice reform is an issue close to the heart of Big City president and CEO Lori Rothschild Ansaldi, a veteran producer who also co-hosts an upcoming podcast on the subject, Spotify’s The System, with Kim Kardashian West.
Rothschild Ansaldi is a leading expert on prison reform, and The Program: Prison Detox, which she executive produces, dives deep into the so-called “trustees” of the program at the Sevier County jail who can have decades-long sentences erased if they do the work, graduate from the program and adhere to its rules. The program is in its 14th iteration and boasts a 72% success rate.
Ahead of the premiere of The Program: Prison Detox on Discovery+ on August 25, Realscreen caught up with Rothschild Ansaldi (pictured below) about the show, her passion for criminal justice reform and the challenges of shooting a documentary in prison during a pandemic.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Of all the stories that could be told about people in the correctional system, what about The Program stood out as something you wanted to focus on?
I wanted to focus on The Program for many reasons. It opened a door to a conversation about jail time being about rehabilitation and not to “throw people away.” It realized that low-level drug crimes are committed by addicts who turn to criminal behavior to feed that addiction.
It also was unexpected. I was impressed that a small town like De Queen, which has been pummeled by meth and other drugs, was willing and able to pull together their efforts to fix the problem themselves. I believe that this progressive program will serve as an example that will be franchised to other jails around the country.
How are you using documentary/non-fiction formats to talk about criminal justice reform?
Once I started working in criminal justice reform, I realized that post-conviction lawyers working on wrongful convictions really wanted and needed media exposure for their cases. Attorneys started to see how documentary and podcast projects could bring attention and rally support for their clients… and get them relief in the courts. They started to understand the importance of social media and celebrity attachments. After my work on the Kevin Keith case (Spotify’s upcoming series The System) and my affiliation with Kim Kardashian West, attorneys started contacting me for help with their cases. I help strategize ways to get their cases into the media, whether it’s a tweet from a celebrity, a carefully placed op-ed, or developing a feature documentary or podcast.
There is so much work to do on our criminal justice system and there are so many pieces that need reform. So I have focused my attention on four areas: wrongful convictions, abolishing the death penalty, unfair sentencing for low-level drug crimes (and rehabilitation) and unfair sentencing for juvenile offenders (and rehabilitation).
I then search for and develop projects based on those areas. The Program: Prison Detox is a great example of this. A small-town sheriff created a program inside his jail to show that low-level drug offenders are not criminals, they are addicts. He knew that if he could cure the addiction, the recidivism in his area would decrease — and it worked. Not only are the numbers down, but he is also fixing the families that were riddled with addiction by giving them this rehabilitation. This project is a perfect Big City series because it is a very important topic for criminal justice reform and it creates a meaningful conversation with viewers about their thoughts on drug offenders in this country. It does not try to sway them, it just shows them what others are doing and what is possible.
What kind of challenges does shooting a prison-focused project present?
The biggest challenge with shooting a prison-focused project is, number one, safety, and then number two is abiding by the protocols of the facility. Our crew needed to be trained by the facility on what was allowed and not allowed in terms of where we could go and what we could cover. We were very lucky with Sheriff Gentry and Deputy Wolcott who opened the doors to the Sevier County Jail and guided us every step of the way. In order to get that kind of access, you really need to cultivate a strong relationship with the police and the Deputy Prosecutor, and our team knew and understood that.
What’s it been like working on a prison-based series through the COVID-19 pandemic?
This has been one of the toughest projects to shoot for a number of reasons. Obviously, shooting inside of a prison has its own challenges without a pandemic. Without a pandemic, you create protocols to keep everyone safe from physical harm. And, as on any crime show, you are also very aware that the content you are creating could impact the mental health of your crew. Safety is always our first priority and we followed state and local guidelines that had been set forth.
You launched your own company, Big City TV, under The Content Group. What’s that experience been like, growing the brand and choosing projects?
I would venture to say that the experience has been a lot like the traditional model of opening a company with one major difference — having the support of a bigger company. From the moment I opened Big City, the mantra was go big, but give bigger. I had already developed and produced content for both sides of the business, as a network executive and for production companies. I wanted to do something different, so I dug deep into the roots of why I wanted to work in documentary television in the first place. That crazy idea that most of us had back in the day, that we could use this medium to tell stories about our world to educate and enlighten. It sounded so lofty at first, but I really wanted to create shows that sparked meaningful conversations about important topics and that is the filter we created for Big City. We ask the question — what is the conversation that we are trying to have with the viewer? And that is how we choose projects.
The beauty of The Content Group is that it is set up to allow companies like Big City to have distinct brands inside of the larger company. There is no sales quota or some forum where we have to ask permission to develop a project that we believe is right for our company. It’s really simple — if we believe it is right for our company, we are supported to develop it the way we want to sell and produce it.
What do you have planned for your upcoming slate?
We are knee-deep in production on a podcast for Lava Media that looks at wrongful convictions and asks the question: “If that person did not commit the crime, then who did?” And the answer is always crazy because the majority (if not all) of the cases reveal that the real killer was allowed to roam free and commit more crimes.
We are just starting production on a crime story based in Alaska where a teen girl was catfished by a boy on Snapchat to kill her best friend. And she did it. It’s a riveting look into our children’s relationship with social media and how they can be brainwashed to commit crimes.
We are also developing a beautiful bridal format with leading designer Pnina Tornai. It’s an eye into the tradition of matrimony around the world. Based in both Tel Aviv and New York, it allows viewers to get to know and experience Israel. It’s beautiful and I cannot wait to see it on the air.
Watch an exclusive clip below: