Unlocked A Jail Experiment

Netflix’s Unlocked: A Jail Experiment follows Sheriff Eric Higgins as he gives surprising new freedoms to inmates in the Pulaski County Regional Detention Facility in Little Rock: Reversing rules in which they were locked up in cells 23 hours a day, he ordered that cell doors be unlocked so that inmates could come and go within the jail walls.

The idea, Higgins says in the doc, was to prepare inmates to learn to get along and to be part of the outside community. He saw the unlocked cell doors as key to reducing the stresses of an overcrowded jail, and reducing the murder rate in Little Rock when prisoners are eventually released.

In the debate that has unfolded in Pulaski County since a trailer for the series premiered, he has said the experiment was a success, and that he plans to expand it.

As Unlocked details, the experiment — which took place last year — almost fell apart within its first hours. The docuseries shows one inmate assaulting another — a 42-year-old named Miller who is accused of domestic assault and has no filter, which gets on the nerves of the other inmates. Other prisoners smoke coffee sticks — cigarettes made from coffee — and make plans for tattoos and prison hooch.

Scenes from the series, taken out of the context of the full eight-episode series, have drawn shock from local officials who say Higgins had no authority to let a documentary crew into the prison. They worry about the image it presents of Little Rock.

“‘People are very upset because they believe this is the next installment of Gang War: Bangin’ in Little Rock, which was probably the worst PR for central Arkansas ever,'” Pulaski County Judge Barry Hyde told local media earlier this month, referring to a 1994 documentary about gang violence in the Arkansas capitol.

The matter now appears headed to court, but whatever happens, the docuseries got its footage — and viewers are rapt. Unlocked: A Jail Experiment, which arrived on Netlix a week ago today, has been No. 1 in Netflix’s Top TV Shows since the weekend.

What Happens in Unlocked: A Jail Experiment?

Pulaski County Regional Detention Facility houses both convicted criminals on their way to prison and defendants who have yet to go to trial. it features men accused of crimes involving drugs, domestic abuse, and even murder.

But Higgins says that people who watch all of the Unlocked docuseries will see that the jail experiment served its purpose. And the elected sheriff, a Democrat, plans to expand it to offer greater freedoms.

The local NAACP has offered “unequivocal support” for Higgins’ position, Larry Hicks, chairman of the group’s legal redress committee, said in a news conference Friday.

“We believe what the sheriff is doing is providing an outlet to address the real and serious needs that exist in our jail system, which is comprised mostly of young African men and women here in the city of Little Rock,” Hicks said. “The incarcerated… need to be given opportunities in order to prove that they are more than just a number. They are more than someone who just sits in a jail.”

He also suggested that law enforcement officials across the country watch the docuseries.

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Still, local officials who say they are caught off-guard by the show intend to take legal action over a location release form signed by Higgins and Greg Henry, a producer for Lucky 8 TV Inc., which produced Unlocked. It stipulates that the jail would receive $1,000 for each day of filming.

That amount came to $60,000, which Higgins turned over to the county on March 28, according to Little Rock TV station KATV.

The sheriff has said he was not paid for his part in the docuseries.

But inmates were: The Arkansas Democrat Gazette has reported that those who participated received $75 from Lucky 8 that they could be used to purchase snacks and other items from the prison commissary.

That may not sound like much to people on the outside, but Unlocked makes clear that small amounts of commissary money feel like a windfall behind bars.

Scrutiny has also fallen over payments to guards. The Arkansas Times notes that on Feb. 22, 2023, a sheriff’s lieutenant advised jail personnel that they could be paid $40 an hour to provide “security” while the Lucky 8 filmed in the jail’s H-Unit, the setting for Unlocked. The money was to be paid by the production company.

County officials say Higgins first proposed the idea of unlocking cell doors in late 2021, but that negotiations with Lucky 8 broke down. But in 2022, Higgins entered into the location release agreement with the production company, which allowed filming to go ahead.

How Did Unlocked Safely Shoot Behind Bars?

The documents reported by local news outlets provide some context on how Lucky 8 was able to capture so much inside of H-Unit: While the docuseries plays up the notion that inmates had no guards, the document offering $40 an hour indicates that guards were present — to protect the documentarians.

And the show makes clear that guards monitored inmates on the jail property, behind locked doors, and via cameras — even if the cameras didn’t capture everything.

It also makes clear that guards did sometimes enter the unit, to provide medicine, for example.

Higgins said in response to questions from the Pulaski County Government that an officer was stationed in H-unit six to eight feet outside two secured doors.

He also said inmates were given the option to participate, and that no detainees charged or convicted of sexual crimes were eligible, nor were inmates on a “keep separate list.” Those the jail approved were additionally vetted by the production and the jail staff, he said.

The Local Debate Over Unlocked

Local critics including Chief Roy Baker, of the Arkansas First Responders Bureau, have said that arrangement was dangerously inadequate.

“At no time should any inmate feel that they have even the smallest amount of freedom or reign within the detention facility,” Baker said in a statement. “Had there been a fight or other issue, it would have taken much longer for an officer response and the backup for that officer would have an even longer response time. That leaves a detention officer fighting for their life while they attempt to maintain order.”

Critics have also objected that Higgins should have consulted more with other county officials beforehand so that everyone knew what was happening at the jail.

Hyde told local media that under state law, the only person who can enter the county into a contract is the county judge — meaning himself.

“I recognize I can’t sign a contract,” Higgins told local station KARK, adding that he considered the location release form a “memorandum of understanding.”

But Pulaski County Attorney Adam Fogleman said in an email to the Arkansas Times that the release form is clearly a contract.

Because the story of Unlocked is now out in the world, whatever happens next at the local level may be irrelevant to the debate about how much freedom prisoners should receive.

Main image: Randy “True Story” Randall, one of the inmates most prominently featured in Netflix’s Unlocked: A Jail Experiment.