Netflix fans divided by conditions in Unlocked: A Jail Experiment

Netflix fans divided by conditions in Unlocked: A Jail Experiment

Unlocked: A Jail Experiment has raced to first place on the Netflix Top 10 series chart, but the docuseries has sparked a debate over the conditions of the experiment, and whether the prisoners involved were safeguarded. 

The experiment was held at Little Rock’s Pulaski County Regional Detention Facility and led by Arkansas sheriff Eric Higgins, who was sick of seeing inmates stuck in the US prison system. Higgins decided to trial a system similar to countries such as Norway, where prisoners are treated like humans, resulting in the lowest reoffending rates in Europe.

More than 45 prisoners took part in the radical experiment, which saw them going from spending 23 hours a day in lockdown to living in a unit where cells were unlocked and deputies removed. For six weeks, they lived like this while the production crew filmed the results. 

The aim was to figure out whether more freedom and less control can lead to a community-oriented living environment. While there were some positive outcomes, with the inmates learning to work together, in the final episodes violence erupted after a prisoner was caught cheating at cards. 

And herein lies the problem — revolutionary strategies such as these require months, sometimes years of time and resources to implement. There’s no denying Higgins’ intentions were positive, but as with any social experiment, there are going to be questions of ethics. 

In the case of Unlocked: A Jail Experiment, while trying to generate dignity and accountability for the prisoners, six weeks and no additional measures put certain prisoners at risk. 

As said by one Redditor: “There are clearly those who are much more at risk of physical and mental harm by letting a hierarchy and power structure develop organically among the inmates, and some seem scared out of their gourds and probably wouldn’t have participated in this given the choice.

“Like the guy who got his head bashed in as punishment from another inmate even before the experiment started. The videographers are there to observe, but at the same time, is it ethical for the camera person and producers to stand by and watch someone beating someone else up if there was something they could have done to prevent someone’s bodily injury?”


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Another said: “The thing is just opening the doors doesn’t work. If you want to emulate a prison situation like in some European countries you have to build a jail like that from the ground up, which means smaller units, recreational areas, a punishment/reward system for behavior etc. Even the layout of the jail itself doesn’t really lend itself for the experiment.”

However, it should be noted that all of the prisoners went through a rigorous screening process before taking part in the Netflix series. And if they wanted to leave at any time in the experiment, they were allowed to do so. 

Netflix fans divided by conditions in Unlocked: A Jail Experiment

Social experiments always raise concerns about ethics

And it could be argued that the benefits outweigh the problems. “I agree that the layout of the cellblock and the lack of recreational/educational resources are issues, but I commend the sheriff for working with what he has and not using what he doesn’t have as an excuse to do nothing,” said one Redditor. 

Another said: “You’re missing the point of the whole experiment. It’s not about punishment, it’s about making changes. Everybody has a story and people end up in messed up situations and doing messed up things a lot easier than is realized… Most of these people aren’t evil, they’re just coming from broken systems.”

Ultimately, Unlocked: A Prison Experiment was a learning curve. In the final episode, Higgins says, “I’ve learned to be selective when bringing people into the unit. I think we have to be more intentional because I’ve seen how fragile that community is. But if we commit to something like this and we learn from the experience and continue to try and improve what we’re doing, we can create a safer detention facility.”

Unlocked: A Jail Experiment is streaming on Netflix now. For more documentaries, here are all the new releases coming out this month. And you can find which TV shows to add to your watchlist here.

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