"Unlocked: A Jail Experiment": 7 things we learned from Netflix's free-roaming detainees experiment

What happens in a detention facility with cells left open and little supervision?

By Gabriella Ferrigine

Staff Writer

Published April 23, 2024 4:45PM (EDT)

Unlocking Jail Cell Door (Getty Images/Charles O'Rear)
Unlocking Jail Cell Door (Getty Images/Charles O'Rear)

Sherriff Eric Higgins' proposal seemed almost too radical to believe.

Allow 46 incarcerated men, many of whom were serving time for capital charges, to roam free in their unit with open cell doors for weeks at a time with minimal supervision from deputies. And yet, the sheriff, who helmed the social experiment turned unscripted Netflix series conducted at Pulaski County Regional Detention Facility in Little Rock, Arkansas, felt it could be exactly what detainees needed. 

"We thought, ‘What can we do to create some ownership for those detainees in that unit?’” Higgins told Netflix’s Tudum of the eight-part docuseries, "Unlocked: A Jail Experiment," which premiered on April 10.

 “How do we make the facility safer, and what can we do to still hold them accountable but empower them at the same time?”

In endeavoring to create an environment with less direct supervision, Higgins wanted to both humanize incarcerated people and give the men in the facility's H-unit the autonomy to foster an environment grounded in community. Doing so, he hoped, would not only spur accountability and a sense of collectiveness but also lower the detention center's recidivism rates — the tendency of an incarcerated person to re-offend, often after being released — and discourage detainees from committing future crimes. 

“In this country, we have a certain perception of someone who goes to jail — the assumption being that they’re guilty,” Higgins told the outlet. “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.”

Here are key moments from the experiment: 

How the experiment was conducted
During "Unlocked," inmates were not entirely out of the supervision of deputies and other staff at the detention facility. As Higgins wrote in an ordinance shared by KATV, a deputy was always posted approximately six to eight feet near two secured doors outside H-unit, while an officer constantly monitored CCTV cameras. Staff also installed monitors prior to the deputies' removal to ensure close supervision and safety precautions. “Pulaski County Regional Detention Center is a direct supervision facility, which means the deputies are inside the unit with detainees,” Higgins clarified to Tudum.
“Our re-entry unit is for detainees who want help with their addiction or other issues they’re dealing with,” Higgins added. “There’s an interview process — it’s an open-barrack unit, and it’s the safest in our facility. The behavior is better, it was safer, and the facility was cleaner, because they took ownership. Looking at this experiment, we wondered if that was something we could implement; if we could take a typical unit and modify behavior based on a system of responsibility and benefits.”
Higgins also stated that detainees were briefed in advance on what the experiment would entail so that they could have the choice to opt out. “We didn't automatically open the doors,” Higgins told Tudum. Ahead of filming, the sheriff said, “We talked to them about the possibilities, and about behavior. We gave them a list of responsibilities and [made] personnel available to them to ask more detailed questions."
Lucky 8, the production company involved in "Unlocked" also explained to members of H-unit that they would be recorded as part of the docuseries, making it clear that they could withdraw from the experiment if they wanted to.  “We checked to see if they wanted to be there,” Higgins said. “At any given time, a person could leave [the experimental unit].”
From the onset, there was a stark generational divide between detainees
As one captain says in a meeting ahead of the formal unlocking, "Somebody is [going to] take control."
While effectively all of the members of H-unit are thrilled by the sheriff's announcement of plans to initiate the experiment, conflict inevitably arises once it begins. In particular, the sharp generational divide among the participants is consistently exacerbated by the new rules, giving way to sparring among the groups as well as the emergence of pod bosses. 
When older inmates — notably a man named Randy and another known as Squirrel — attempt to establish a pecking order for who should be in charge and how the unit should conduct themselves, they are met with frustration and resentment by some of the younger inmates. 
While the first week or so of the experiment proceeds relatively smoothly,  juvenile detainees inevitably begin to test the limits of their new freedom. Feeling disrespected, Randy elects to step down from his self-appointed post as leader, which leads to subsequent dissolution of order.
Someone is removed from the experiment for creating a weapon under duress
Though Sheriff Higgins laid out the ground rules for H-unit ahead of "Unlocked's" commencement, one inmate ultimately violates the system by creating a highly contraband shank, a makeshift knife commonly found in prisons and jails. 
David Miller is deeply unliked by many across the pod for constantly stoking quarrels with his behavior and for being somewhat of an outsider, as described by other interviewees. One "Unlocked" participant even refers to him as an "alien from a different planet." After a series of confrontations with other inmates, Miller's final straw comes when a group of youngsters toss ice water onto his bed while he's sleeping. In response, he begins to whittle a shank, presumably to retaliate against his antagonizers. He is caught doing so on camera and is promptly removed from the unit by deputies. 
H-unit is punished with a 24-hour lockdown for bad behavior
Things come to a head about halfway through the experiment after a subset of the detainees begin to engage in illegal practices. In addition to contraband (various pills and drugs) that some have covertly sequestered in their cells, they begin to brew hooch, an illicit alcoholic drink ubiquitous to jails and prisons that is typically made in plastic bags from a concoction of bread crusts, fermented fruit and sugary substances.
Separate from that, inmate John McCallister (better known as Eastside) enlists a group of H-unit members to partake in a wick-making session, in which the group constructs candle wicks out of toilet paper that is then used to light and smoke "coffee sticks" — paper towels soaked in coffee and rolled like blunts — and actual raw cannabis that some of them have smuggled in. After stealing a battery from a clock to serve as a lighter, numerous inmates begin to smoke inside cells, eventually triggering the fire alarm.
Their group's antics are found out, which leads Sheriff Higgins to subject the entire unit to a daylong lockdown in response. Knowing that they will be reluctant to snitch on one another, Higgins also has the group partake in an anonymous vote to share which members of the unit they each feel have compromised the integrity of the experiment through disorderly conduct.
However, Eastside ultimately takes ownership of spearheading the wick-making and is permitted to stay in the unit with certain restrictions (no phone calls, no commissary, and no access to kiosks.)
A detainee returns to the program after a stint in solitary confinement
Raymond "AJ" Lovett, previously removed from H-unit for confiding to a mental health representative at Pulaski that he has been struggling with thoughts of suicide, comes back to join the men for the final week of the program. AJ, who faced capital charges of aggravated assault and murder, is temporarily placed in "the hole" so that he can be more closely monitored in case he becomes a risk to himself. Several other inmates, moved by his situation, show him support with a send-off dinner of commissary items ahead of his time in solitary.
"It felt like I was returning home after being gone for a long time," AJ tells producers upon his re-entrance into H-unit.
The group holds a casino tournament, which leads to violence
Tensions begin to rise after a new group of detainees rotates into H-unit, and ultimately culminate when the group holds a mock casino tournament. Five hours into the tournament, things are especially heated between Weekley — an older, new arrival — and CJ, an established H-unit member who suspects him of cheating at cards and taking money from other detainees. 
CJ and a small group of other inmates create a plan to get Weekley alone in a cell, which leads to an intense physical altercation. The Sheriff removes certain people from the unit after the fight breaks out but still permits the group to have unlocked doors for another 24. The caveat? They must convince him that they can change their ways by the following day.
Sherriff Higgins permits the doors to stay unlocked
The unit comes together as a collective in front of the sheriff to share personal anecdotes and proposals for systemic change, echoing a widely felt sentiment for solidarity as they make a case for why the doors should remain open. After a day of deliberation, Higgins tells the detainees that he has chosen to keep H-unit unlocked.
"There's so much more that we want to do," Higgins says to the group. "But that's gonna depend on you."
Speaking to producers, Higgins says, "Every step is a chance. You know, it takes time, and what I heard from them is trust. Getting up to the point where they trust each other, where they trust us and what we're doing. And I believe that the light bulb has come on."

"Unlocked" is streaming on Netflix.


By Gabriella Ferrigine

Gabriella Ferrigine is a staff writer at Salon. Originally from the Jersey Shore, she moved to New York City in 2016 to attend Columbia University, where she received her B.A. in English and M.A. in American Studies. Formerly a staff writer at NowThis News, she has an M.A. in Magazine Journalism from NYU and was previously a news fellow at Salon.

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