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New Netflix Series, “Unlocked”, paints a bold vision for reforming American jails

April 17, 2024

Authored by Janos Marton, Chief Advocacy Officer

Photo Credit: Netflix

Being a part of the criminal justice movement over the past decade, I’ve been able to meet thousands of people from across the country–advocates, legislators, researchers and journalists–but only a handful of law enforcement leaders have really blown me away with both their commitment to reforming the system and innovative ideas. Sheriff Eric Higgins from Pulaski County, Arkansas, is one of those leaders. I recently learned he was getting a Netflix series, and this weekend I binge-watched eight episodes of pure electricity.

The premise of Unlocked: A Jail Experiment is that one unit of the Pulaski County Detention Center, a pre-trial jail in Little Rock, would run a six-week experiment where cell doors would remain unlocked 24/7s without correction officers present. Sheriff Higgins’ hope was that they would come together as a community to hold each other accountable while maintaining their new privileges. Over the course of the series, Higgins unveils additional privileges, while also managing the tensions that arise in a now mostly unregulated (though closely monitored) jail space.  

I’ve visited men in 23-hour lockdown rooms at Rikers, and even speaking to people on the free side of those doors made me claustrophobic. I wouldn’t last more than a few days in an environment like that without losing it. But with limited resources, many jails are now on lockdown. Sheriff Higgins knew this was an untenable situation, and that’s why he rolled the dice on the Unlocked experiment. 

A few themes permeate this eye-opening series. 

Humanity Behind Bars

Most notably, Unlocked truly humanizes the Pulaski County detainees. The production team does a great job choosing an eclectic set of characters to follow, and captures their growth during the six weeks. For those cycling in and out of jails, life has been hard –drugs, violence, and/or gang activity starting at shockingly young ages. One person began using meth at just 8 years old. Many experienced broken families and other childhood traumas that led to distrust in authority and a life of rebellion. 

The series highlighted men in various stages of turning their lives around, all while showcasing their brilliance and how much they have to offer. One can make tattoo ink out of seemingly anything. Another becomes an unofficial jail unit leader, weathering endless criticism in navigating this unelected role. In the emotional high point of the series, one detainee reconnects with his family, while another finds his life’s purpose. Was all of this the result of simply letting them out of their cages into a crowded common room and giving them more access to phones and visitation? The answer appears to be yes. 

Coming of Age in the System

Another interesting takeaway is that age was a more significant dividing line than race or gang affiliation. Young men are…something else, to say the least - inside or outside of jail. We probably need to have an entirely different approach for engaging younger incarcerated men.. In the series they are pictured doing their best to “have fun somehow” by making hooch, tattooing, or pranking while being frustratingly oblivious to consequences, much to the dismay of the older men. A few years ago, Rikers Island tried to move some of the older guys to the young men’s unit to calm things down; we never heard how that turned out. As my colleague Josh Hoe has pointed out, in state prisons, “lifers” often have a calming effect incentivized by wanting to live in a stable environment. That stability is not possible in the transitory pre-trial jail settings. 

Therapy is Crucial

Reality TV shows are famous for their confessional interviews, and make no mistake, Unlocked is filmed, for better or worse, like a classic reality show. The on-camera confessionals implicitly reveal the importance of therapy during the jail experience. The in-cell interviews provide an opportunity for these men to process and reflect out loud. Even though several of them mock the concept of therapy (and one person is sent to solitary for saying the wrong thing in his therapy session), it’s easy to trace many of the men’s evolution from the nihilistic bravado of their early interviews to the introspection they show five to six weeks later. Whatever it’s called, hardened men need an opportunity to work through their problems and open up, which is very, very tough in a typical jail setting. Right now, people in most jails don’t get mental health support at all beyond initial psych evaluations, despite county jails serving as the de facto largest mental health facility in most jurisdictions. 

3 Key Reflections

I can imagine a few critiques of this series: (1) This sets the bar too low for what counts as humane conditions, (2) plenty of more progressive jail systems in the U.S. already provide these so-called “radical” reforms, and (3) the experiment doesn't give the detainees any additional resources. I’ll address these in turn.

First, it is abominable that we can keep people in cages for 23 hours a day. Unfortunately, it’s going to keep happening more in the years ahead. We are in the middle of a massive corrections officer shortage, and plenty of states and federal agencies seem inflexible to holistic solutions that will keep people out of prison.

Second, Unlocked taking place in Arkansas will do more for criminal justice reform than some NPR special about a New England prison unit where everyone gets college degrees. A majority of states are run by Republicans, including most of the states with the highest incarceration rates, and they want to know what solutions are coming out of other Republican states. These are the places where Dream.Org does much of its legislative work, and the cards you’re dealt politically in such places are challenging. The disrespect and disengagement the national criminal justice movement and the philanthropic community show towards organizing in conservative states is part of why we’ve made such little progress.

Third, Sheriff Higgins is trying to build something scalable, as evidenced by his desires to expand the program. I happen to know that the Pulaski jail does have programs that Sheriff Higgins has supported in recent years, including one run by our Campaign Manager, Ruby Welch. There is no doubt that the infusion of serious resources around education, mental health, and job training would be helpful. I know this because such programs have already succeeded in many places. Unfortunately, the grim reality is that most local governments will not spend money to improve local jails, and a strong nonprofit infrastructure is hard to find outside of major cities. That’s why we need ideas that can work everywhere, regardless of resources. Lastly, while programs are sorely needed and often helpful, Unlocked makes clear that what gives detainees the most hope in jail is the love and support of family. That’s why access to non-extractive, free or cheap phone calls (which Worth Rises is advocating for around the country) and family visitation (a core plank in our Dignity for Incarcerated Women campaigns) are so important. 

Sheriff Higgins assumed considerable risk in running this experiment, but as someone who has committed his career to public safety, he knew the status quo wasn’t working. He was initially subject to a torrent of legal and political criticism, much of which has subsided as Unlocked became Netflix’s #1 show. For his innovative boldness, Sheriff Higgins is a model for courageous leadership. 

As much as Sheriff Higgins’ work successfully set a template for jails across the country to adopt, the powerful stories here are that of detainees who overcame not only their pasts, but the abysmal jail conditions of their present, to picture a better future for themselves. That’s the same approach we have always adopted at Dream.Org, believing not only that justice-impacted people are capable of far more than society allows, but that they hold the solutions that will help us close prison doors and open doors of opportunity.

The future starts with a dream.
The future starts with us.
Black woman standing in front of protestors.