Families of Pennsylvania crime victims are in an uproar over a new VH1 documentary series that spotlights prison music bands--outfits made up of murderers, rapists and other unsavory inmates who are serving out their sentences in various lockups.
Called Music Behind Bars, the program is hosted by The Practice's Dylan McDermott and produced by Arnold Shapiro--the man behind CBS' Big Brother and Rescue 911 and a Oscar winner for his 1979 prison doc Scared Straight. Shapiro bills the series as an unglamorous look at life in the clink and the power of music as a means of rehabilitation.
However, families of the victims say the program is an affront to the memory of those whose lives were forever altered, and in some cases ended, by the criminal musicians. The families also say the show demonstrates an extreme lack of sensitivity and taste on VH1's part.
"I couldn't believe it...it was like slapping me in the face," an angry Mary Orlando told the Philadelphia Inquirer after seeing the cable channel's advertisements promoting the show.
The first episode of Music Behind Bars is set at Pennsylvania's Graterford State Corrections Facility and focuses on a heavy metal band called Dark Mischief, one of whose members, Christopher Bissey, gunned down Orlando's 15-year-old daughter and a friend at Lehigh University in 1995.
For Orlando, watching Bissey prancing around with other band members on prime-time was sickening--especially given her daughter loved music and dreamed of one day becoming a dancer.
VH1 crews logged three days shooting at the maximum security prison, talking to prison officials and capturing jailbirds like Bissey in their day-to-day existence, talking about their crimes, and making melodious for their fellow felons.
"Not giving inmates things to do is dangerous," deputy warden David DiGuglielmo says in a VH1 press release. "They need ways to occupy their time. Some of the inmates--before they got into music--were difficult people.
On VH1's Website, Dark Mischief is said to be a mainstay at Graterford. Despite numerous personnel changes over its 11-year history--including members being paroled, put in 24-hour solitary confinement or losing their music playing privileges--the band has managed to survive in various incarnations and lasted as long as Pearl Jam.
"It's hard to keep a band together in here--you have people going home all the time, you have people getting in trouble and getting locked up...you have to keep those spots filled if you want to keep your band time in a band room," says Mischief frontman Troy Spencer, who's doing 25 years for armed robbery.
Mischief guitarist Buli [no last name was given by VH1], meanwhile, will still be playing once most of his mates are long gone-- he's serving a life sentence for murder.
Adds Spencer: "It ain't like the street, where you can put out a flyer or a newspaper ad...we can look right around and we know who's here...So if there are crappy drummers were stuck with crap."
The VH1 series focuses on the difficulty of of keeping a prison band together: Inmates not only have to find players, they have to schedule gigs, do their own publicity, rehearse and make sure their prison chores get done on time, all for the pleasure of playing for some of the toughest crowds in the world. If their audience of murderers, thieves, rapists, and other criminals doesn't like what they're hearing or fail to show up, Mischief could lose their playing privileges.
While VH1 explores the pressures of a jailhouse rocker, victims' rights advocates accuse the reality series of exploiting tragedy for the sake of entertainment.
"Number one, our hearts really go out to this family that they had to be retraumatized by this sudden exposure on national television," says Mary Rappaport of the National Center for Victims of Crimes, a Washington, D.C., based advocacy group. "If this makes celebrities out of offenders, it's detrimental to society and particularly painful and insensitive to victims. The reason VH1 put this on is because of the prison setting and I think that's what has to be looked at."
After protests by victims' families, Pennsylvania's House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution calling on VH1 to donate profits from Music Behind Bars to the state's Office of the Victim Advocate.
Pennsylvania Governor Mark Schweiker also joined the fray, announcing that the state's department of corrections will from now on notify families of victims on whenever the incarcerated end up on the tube.
"We need to ensure that crime victims are never again caught off-guard by turning on their televisions and unexpectedly seeing the inmate who has caused them so much pain," Schweiker tells the Associated Press.Susan McNaughton, a spokeswoman for the department of corrects, also issued a mea culpa, saying officials would seriously reconsider granting any similar requests in the future. McNaughton says could sympathize with people like Mary Orlando who might be hurt "watching VH1 and seeing people sent to prison playing guitars."
Reps for the cable channel did not return phone calls seeking comment on the resolution.
Future installments of Music Behind Bars promise to highlight girl bands from New Hampshire's State Prison for Women and a country group called Dakota from Mount Olive. The documentary series premieres on Friday.