Netflix shoots new documentary show at Arkansas jail, lawmakers say it’s exploitation

May 15, 2024 | Political News

Last month, a new documentary series set at an Arkansas prison premiered on Netflix, in which inmates were given more freedom by having their cell doors unlocked. In the weeks since, lawmakers in the state have criticized the sheriff who stars in it, with some going so far as to suggest that it amounts to “exploitation” of the prisoners.

Pulaski County Sheriff Eric Higgins has defended the project, titled “Unlocked: A Jail Experiment,” saying it was necessary to tackle misconceptions people may have about those behind bars.

Among those who voiced their concerns with the series was Republican State Sen. Jonathan Dismang. As the Associated Press reports, he made it clear that his ire was not directed at Higgins' attempts to try and reduce recidivism by restoring dignity, rather the fact that it was filmed for the world to see.

“I think it's an exploitation of your prisoners that you allowed a film crew to come in,” he said.

State Rep. David Ray, on the other hand, was more concerned about how the film would impact outsiders' perceptions of the area.

“For most of the people that watched this docuseries, this is the first time they've ever been exposed to Pulaski County, or perhaps to the state of Arkansas,” he said. “I worry about the brand damage that our state sustains from this being the first perception of our state to other people.”

As the AP reports, Pulaski County Judge Barry Hyde said that he only became aware of the series after seeing a trailer shortly before it was released on Netflix. The county returned a $60,000 check to the production company after Hyde ruled it was illegal since he hadn't signed off on it.

In an interview with Netflix's Tudum, Higgins explained that inmates “were made aware by the production company that they were going to be recording,” and that, “at any given time, a person could leave.”

He noted that the experiment showed promising results.

“In this country, we have a certain perception of someone who goes to jail — the assumption being that they’re guilty,” Higgins added, “but they deserve dignity. These individuals, they're fathers, they’re uncles, they’re sons. People care about them … they’re not just a number. I believe that if you treat people right, and you hold them accountable … I think they take that with them when they walk out of this facility. I think we have proven that people will rise to the expectation.”