The “unhinged” Netflix show that could change America forever
(Credit: Cameron Venti)

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The "unhinged" Netflix show that could change America forever

America’s prison system can be studied as a microcosm of its various sociopolitical drawbacks. At a time when several nations across the globe have taken initiatives to rehabilitate instead of punish inmates, America continues to struggle with issues of overpopulation, understaffing as well as higher cases of repeat offenders. A new docuseries on Netflix has brought to the fore a radical experiment that could challenge, if not potentially change, America forever.

Unlocked: A Jail Experiment dares to confront the very essence of incarceration, shedding light on a transformative initiative within the Pulaski County Jail in Little Rock, Arkansas. This eight-part docuseries, which debuted on Netflix on April 10th, 2024, unfolds a daring social experiment helmed by Sheriff Eric Higgins, aiming to revolutionise the traditional model of confinement.

Under Sheriff Higgins’ leadership, the Pulaski County Detention Facility undertook a six-week program where inmates were granted unprecedented freedom, with their unit cells unlocked for the majority of the day. This departure from the conventional 23-hour lockdown seeks to explore the potential of autonomy in fostering a sense of community and responsibility among detainees.

Sheriff Higgins, driven by a deep concern for the high recidivism rates and the deplorable conditions of the jails, has a vision of offering inmates a genuine alternative to incarceration. ​​“We thought, ‘What can we do to create some ownership for those detainees in that unit?” Higgins told Netflix. “How do we make the facility safer, and what can we do to still hold them accountable but empower them at the same time?’”

The experiment unfolds within the largest direct supervision facility in Arkansas, accommodating up to 1,200 individuals daily. By removing deputies from the units and implementing a tier-based structure, Sheriff Higgins endeavoured to instil a system of accountability and reward, mirroring successful re-entry programs.

The series delves into the inmates’ experiences, capturing both the triumphs and challenges of this unprecedented venture. Through candid interviews and unfiltered access, Unlocked showcases the impact of autonomy on the detainees’ behaviour and mindset. There were moments of defiance and struggle, underscoring the profound trauma and systemic obstacles embedded within the incarceration system. However, Sheriff Higgins’ hypothesis was ultimately validated as inmates rose to the occasion, demonstrating a capacity for self-improvement and community-building.

The concept of open prisons is nothing new. Countries like Finland and Scandinavian nations offer models of open prisons, emphasising rehabilitation and reintegration. In India, the implementation proved “78 times cheaper than closed prisons”, as per a report by EPW Engage.

Unlocked: A Jail Experiment not only offers a unique glimpse into the transformative power of autonomy but also challenges us to reimagine the very foundations of incarceration in America. However, some people are drawn in by the raw “unhinged” drama and not just the chance to peek into the lives of inmates like never before. Some viewers have even claimed that this docuseries contains all the quintessential trappings of a reality TV show.

You can stream Unlocked: A Jail Experiment on Netflix now and check out the trailer right here: