Maryum “May May” Ali isn’t a fan of reality TV. But she chose to be a part of A&E’s new series 60 Days In because she wants to help people.
The 12-part show, which debuts March 10, follows Ali and six other innocent volunteers as they pretend to be inmates for two months in a Jeffersonville, Indiana jail in order to expose corruption and improve the quality of living conditions. Ali, the eldest of boxing legend Muhammad Ali’s nine children, is an activist and social worker for at-risk youths.
“I was invited and when they told me the concept, I lit up a little bit because of my experience with young clients I’m trying to prevent from going to jail. And some of their parents are in jail,” says Ali, 47, who was born and raised in Chicago, but now lives on the West Coast.
“As much as you do this work, you really don’t know what that experience is like,” Ali says. “I felt fairly safe. I knew there was an element of vulnerability for me, so I vetted this program as much as they vetted me. I wanted to get some personal and professional growth from it and I did.”
In order to keep her identity hidden from officers and inmates who didn’t know she was a part of 60 Days In, the former rapper and stand-up comedian used an alias. Ali, who strongly resembles her famous father, also couldn’t tell her family and friends where she was or what she was doing. Producers allowed her to tell one person, her roommate.
She didn’t just lose contact with her family. Ali also lost a lot of comforts we all take for granted. There was a great deal of processed food – which Ali rarely eats – metal frame beds and a large number of poor and uneducated white female inmates with limited exposure to Black people.
“I was the only African American for the most part,” Ali says. “One Black girl came in and out towards the end. I went to high school at a predominately white high school and I have friends of all different races. So I felt confident but in that jail environment, you’re in survival mode. “When you’re the only Black person, you do wonder if a person is doing something for that reason. You have to protect yourself and you don’t know what people’s motives are.”
Ali, who has a mane of well-maintained locs, also had to figure out ways to keep her hair game relatively tight.
“My Shea butter moisturizer spray is like Jheri curl juice for me. If my hair gets dry, it can break off,” Ali says with a laugh. “But they did have a commissary and they have products. So I MacGyver-ed some things and created some moisturizer with some conditioner and pomade and water and ChapStick. I ripped up a T-shirt and used it to wrap up my hair.”
Now that’s Black ingenuity.
More than anything, Ali says she hopes people learn about the criminal justice system and how everyday people can improve inhumane incarceration through funding and activism. She also hopes viewers see the show as the vehicle for change that it is.
“I really feel honored to do this because of the way it was done,” Ali says. The producers behind 60 Days In also created Behind Bars: Rookie Year on A&E and the Weather Channel’s 3 Scientists Walk Into a Bar.
“They just followed us,” she says. “I wasn’t told what to do or what to say. Nothing was contrived. What people see is 100 percent real and some of us fared better than others based on our decisions. I wouldn’t involve myself in anything pretentious and lie about that. I wouldn’t. I’m glad I did it.”
60 Days In premieres Thursday March 10 at 9 p.m. ET on A&E