Louis Theroux – Miami Mega Jail Review: Fight Club


Miami’s Mega Jail is the focus for Louis Theroux’s latest documentary, and it is a place you don’t want wind up in, that much is for sure. A bleak, barbaric hothouse of feral aggression and violence, fighting is the code by which everyday life is organised – fighting for a bunk, for food, for ‘respect’, for preservation. Or, just fighting to keep hold of your shoes, as one inmate asks of Louis: “What size shoes you got?â€?

With 90% of its inmates awaiting trial and sometimes housed at 24 individuals to a cell, time here in this Miami jail is “tougher and more brutal than any other institution,â€? and that’s the word from one of the guards. Ranging from those accused of petty theft to those accused of multiple violent crimes (murder, home invasion, armed robbery), the population is diverse, the rules though apply to one and all irrespectively. Fighting here is not just a common occurrence but the currency through which life is bargained. A new inmate to a cell has to fight in an area called ‘the paint’ if he wants to prove himself, or get a bottom bunk (the more desirable option).

‘Snitches get stitches’ is the mantra that rings out, those seen as working with the authorities, on the inside or out, open season for attack. Yet, as one inmate explains, after returning from the medical bay with his face battered and bruised, his eyes swollen shut, it was driving with a suspended licence that landed him in this particular predicament, so it is unlikely that he was cooperating with anyone on his case. Snitches or not, “the only way you resolve things in here is to fight,â€? reasons another, who latterly reappears in a different jail on crutches after a bruising encounter left him with a plethora of injuries.

Theroux’s intention here is to present life as it is in the jail, to discern whether the violence is created by the inmates or by the conditions, and a compelling case is made for both arguments. The conditions undoubtedly contribute to the behaviour, the crammed conditions with only but two one-hour yard sessions a week are certain to give rise to the most extreme cabin fever.

Theroux’s bumbling persona, asking obvious questions and playing the idiot, perplexes the inmates as intended, but illicits genuine responses from them as they open up, to varying degrees, to someone so dumb that he couldn’t possibly pose any threat. One inmate, prone to ‘gunning the guards’ (openly masturbating), discusses his reasons for doing such a thing, and how he feels no shame or embarrassment.

By simply observing though, Theroux offers up little context for the procession of depravity, instead opting to focus on particular characters and the conditions. Yet like the inmates’ situation, their cases stalled indefinitely by the system’s bureaucracy and the hope that time might improve their prospects, their future an intangible object held out in front of them like a carrot, Miami Mega Jail suffers from a lack of narrative or destination. Jail is a terrible place, this jail the worst of the worst, but we learn little more about it and those it houses. Next week’s second part, looking at those afforded the chance to make amends for their misdemeanours via boot camp and those awaiting the death penalty, might rectify this.