Are The Jail Scenes In ‘The Night Of’ Realistic? A Former Inmate Responds

Last night, HBO aired the season finale of The Night Of, one of this season’s most-discussed shows. On some level, I understand the obsession. The acting is spectacular almost to a person, from John Turturro on down, and the cinematography is wonderfully consistent at setting a mood. And both do a good job disguising writing that, under less beautifully executed circumstances, would probably make me shout “Oh come on!” a lot.

Okay, I lied. I still shouted “Oh come on!” a lot (…and continued watching anyway, which is really the only relevant praise for a television show). A cathartic moment near water in the first episode? Oh come on! A detective who listens to classical music? Oh come on! A wise prison mentor who teaches boxing as a metaphor for life? Oh come on!

Those mostly fall under the category of “semi-hacky, self-serious writerliness,” but some of the jail scenes had me legitimately confused. “Naz” (Riz Ahmed) is in jail awaiting trial. Why is there a dude there who seems like a lifer? Did they confuse jail with prison or am I missing something?

As it happens, I have a former classmate who spent a good portion of his formative years in and out of jail and prison (for counterfeiting, drugs, etc), and even wrote a memoir about it. Matthew Parker, author of Larceny In My Blood: A Memoir of Heroin, Handcuffs, and Higher Education, seemed like an ideal “jail depiction realism correspondent,” so I asked him about it. I didn’t want to prejudice him with any of my opinions, so all I asked was whether he’d seen the show.

[Spoilers, obviously]

“I watched the first three episodes and, thus far, the jail scenes border on ludicrous, kind of like the show Oz, which was even more ludicrous. First off, you always hear about so-called ‘cavity searches,’ but in reality they are highly illegal. It’s a form of rape to insert an object in a vagina or rectum, so the idea that a guard would reach into a man’s ass and pull out a cell phone the latter had stashed up there is ridiculous. Standard practice was (and likely still is), if they suspected that you had something keestered, to put you in a ‘dry cell’–no toilet or running water–with nothing but a bucket. You gotta sh*t sooner or later.”

I confirmed this with a lawyer, by the way, who said “It is safer, easier and more legal just to stick the person in isolation and watch them till the contraband is passed.”

“Likewise the idea of visitors being strip searched is idiotic. Moreover, it was announced in open court that Naz was under arrest for sexual assault as well as the murder. That’s all the evidence convicts need. He probably wouldn’t have survived the bus trip back to Rikers. Also, he’s a Muslim that raped and murdered a white woman in a highly publicized case. They’d have never put that boy in population to begin with. He wouldn’t have lasted an hour.

Speaking of which, where are all the white inmates?”

“As to the Omar dude [Michael K. Williams, who plays Freddy] having a TV and cell phones? Far-fetched at best. Probably half of all inmates in county jails are snitches, and they’ll snitch on anybody for anything. Nor can a female guard just show up and take him to a closet for sex. There’s reams of paperwork to be filled out every time an inmate is moved. There’s way too much oversight these days. And polygraphs being introduced? Yeah, the prison guard union will vote for that at the next meeting, I’m sure.”

“And lastly, the idea of Omar extorting Naz (which is where it’s leading, I’m guessing) is viable, but he’d not have waited. Moreover, there’s officially only three races in prison; white, black, and everybody else — the leaders of this last being Latino. They’d have had first dibs on extortion because Naz is by default of their group. But it’s all moot since Naz would have been placed in protective custody on day one anyway.”

As a follow-up I asked if there was really that hierarchical and entrenched a drug trade going on in jail (where people are mostly just in temporarily awaiting trial, as opposed to prison). To which Parker responded “Not so much in jail, but in prison it’s pretty lucrative.”

In any case, I’m not trying to ruin the show for anyone (nor did knowing this ruin it for me), but I was genuinely curious. And if you really want to scratch that detailed-knowledge-of-jail-life itch, there’s always 60 Days In on A&E. Isn’t television amazing?

Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.