Inmates with Talent screenshot

'Inmates With Talent' takes the reality competition behind bars

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In the modern TV world of hot housewives, survivors, naked dating and sanctioned spouse swapping, prison life seems to be on the tamer end of the spectrum when it comes to programming. Women behind bars (OITNB titillation factor aside), kids getting scared straight and hyperbolic glimpses into cellblock life are among a few themes that have emerged to date in this odd-yet-growing category of entertainment. So why not inmates competing in a talent show?

For Johnny Collins, Producer/Director/Co-Host of Inmates with Talent, his upcoming film, which he describes as American Idol meets Last Comic Standing, represents the intersection of personal interest and greater societal good. The film, currently in post-production and about to enter a Kickstarter campaign for final touches and distribution, captures a talent show held at an Indiana medium-security prison which houses more than 2,000 inmates. For Collins, this goes behind his quest to perform comedy in unusual places; one of the catalysts for Inmates with Talent was to prepare inmates for life after incarceration and boost self-esteem while serving their time.

In pure serio-comic tone, Collins asks “If we can recycle bags, why can’t we recycle peoples’ lives?”

What started out as a casual conversation between Collins and his friend Joel Jerome about new venues to perform quickly turned into an idea that married their love of comedy and desire to find the next Tim Allen. Prior to his days as a stand up comedian and sitcom star, Allen spent five years in a Michigan prison for drug trafficking, later telling Esquire that comedy saved his life. The concept of comedy as a form of rehabilitation resonated with Collins, as his friend Jerome had spent a short time in jail.

As you might gather, one does not walk into the a warden’s office and announce you are holding auditions. The process took Collins to two state prison systems, focusing on those that were open to progressive ways of rehabilitating their population. After reviewing the idea and viewing some sample performances, Doug Garrison, chief communications officer for the Indiana Department of Corrections, gave Collins the green light and Inmates with Talent was filmed at the Putnamville Correctional Facility in Greencastle, IN. The inmates weren’t limited to telling jokes; there were also categories for spoken word and singing, with 25 inmates participating in the show which included some standup shtick from Collins and a few of his friends including Steve WIlson and Edwin San Juan.

Rapper-actor Ice-T acts as narrator for the show, and his presence is for more than just show: “Before we started Inmates With Talent, Ice-T had a history of visiting America’s prisons and speaking to guys about getting on the right path in life," says Collins. “Another reason Ice-T is a great fit for our project is because of his talents on camera, which are fueled by his deep life experiences.”

The net result of Collins’ efforts is 60 hours of footage which he hopes to pare down into a two-hour end product. To date, the project has been funded out of Collin’s pocket via savings and credit cards, but it will be taking to Kickstarter to raise money for post-production. Collins would not state how much money he hopes to raise to complete the show, although he hopes to distribute across all platforms (in theater, on the web) and perhaps eventually turn into a series.

Collins, who has a background in corporate PR, should realize he may not have an easy sale on his hands. The current public perception of life behind bars is a mixed bag of angry violent felons (LockupOz), women struggling to survive harsh conditions (Orange is the New Black) and a show, Beyond Scared Straight, that hopes to put out-of-control juvenile offenders on the straight and narrow. Will the public be amenable to putting up money to help along a new show that focuses on offering prisoners a way to build self confidence and prepare for a life after incarceration? Collins believes Inmates with Talent will get the support it needs.

“The biggest surprise to me was that I was expecting to meet hardened criminals and would find it difficult to help them,” Collins says. “It was quite the opposite. I learned that sometimes people make bad mistakes.”

Screenshot via Inmates with Talent/YouTube