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Netflix reality show raises questions about the ethics of filming incarcerated people

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A reality TV show filmed at Arkansas Jail has been the subject of controversy that's divided officials and residents in the community. As Little Rock Public Radio's Maggie Ryan reports, the show raises questions about the ethics of filming people who are incarcerated.

MAGGIE RYAN, BYLINE: The Netflix series "Unlocked: A Jail Experiment" was filmed inside the Pulaski County Regional Detention Facility last spring. It's about a new program where detainees are allowed to move about their unit without direct supervision.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNLOCKED: A JAIL EXPERIMENT")

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Jails in America are violent and understaffed, which means inmates are locked down for up to 23 hours a day. That's why this sheriff is willing to risk it all on a new, radical idea.

RYAN: The series follows Pulaski County Sheriff Eric Higgins, who had the radical idea to let mostly pretrial detainees govern themselves. In eight 40-minute episodes, inmates seem to be left to their own devices as they figure out how to function with their new level of responsibility. Higgins says the experimental model will create a less dangerous place for inmates.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNLOCKED: A JAIL EXPERIMENT")

ERIC HIGGINS: They need support not only from volunteers coming in and staff but also from each other. And when you create that community, you create a safer environment.

RYAN: And their behavior does appear to change. In interviews with the producers throughout the show, inmates talk about how the experiment helped them to gain a new perspective, like in the final episode, where two detainees from different generations resolve to end in tense rivalry.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNLOCKED: A JAIL EXPERIMENT")

RANDY RANDALL: I apologize to you because we took it out of proportion, and then you just start stepping back from everybody just like me.

CHAUNCEY YOUNG: Really, I just seen what was going on. I just decided to change for the better for myself.

RYAN: The inmates, Randy Randall and Chauncey Young, both agree they don't want to risk losing their place in the unit for causing disruption. In the years since the series was filmed, Sheriff Higgins says the experimental unit remains one of the safest in the jail. But he's come under intense criticism because of the show. County officials are questioning who had the authority to approve the filming contract. Pulaski County Judge Barry Hyde says per the state constitution, he's the one authorized to sign contracts, but he didn't know about the production until he saw a trailer for the show.

BARRY HYDE: As the county judge, I was never included, didn't know anything about it.

RYAN: Higgins maintains he had the authority to invite the production company into the jail. Arkansas lawmakers questioned Higgins about the show one month after its release. Republican state senator Jonathan Dismang told Higgins he doesn't disagree with the reform effort, but he thinks filming the experiment takes advantage of incarcerated people.

JONATHAN DISMANG: No one was against what you were trying to do, at least in trying to better the jail, and I don't think it took a TV show to accomplish what you were trying to accomplish. And and I think the exploitation is real. And I think you put people in a very bad situation.

RYAN: The criticism doesn't stop with lawmakers. The show also raises questions about the ethics of filming inside a jail. Adamu Chan is a documentary filmmaker who was incarcerated in California for 15 years. He says there's a risk to inmates with production companies wanting to look inside detention facilities that isn't often challenged.

ADAMU CHAN: One of the issues with documentary film in general is that, like, it's an inherently extractive process unless, you know, the participants and subjects of the film are actually, like, participating in it, right?

RYAN: None of the inmates were paid to be part of the show. The production company sent a check of $60,000 to the county, which rejected it because they deemed the contract illegal. And at least one participant wasn't happy with the production. Randy Randall, who is still incarcerated, filed a complaint against Sheriff Higgins, arguing the perception of him on the show could negatively impact his trial. But a judge dismissed that complaint. Higgins continues to respond to criticism emphasizing the unit's transformation in the six-week filming period.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HIGGINS: We know from this experience that we can create a safer unit pod by pod. We can do that if we invest in it and do it correctly.

RYAN: Higgins has championed prison reform efforts throughout his career, and he has plenty of supporters. Chief Deputy Charles Hendricks says the sheriff's office has received an outpour of support since the show's release.

CHARLES HENDRICKS: The sheriff gets letters from all over the country, and it's all been positive. I have not heard anything negative except here in central Arkansas.

RYAN: The sheriff's office plans to expand the "Unlocked" experiment to other units in the jail. For NPR News, I'm Maggie Ryan in Little Rock.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAMIEN RICE'S "VOLCANO (ALTERNATIVE INSTRUMENTAL VERSION)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Maggie Ryan
[Copyright 2024 Hawai‘i Public Radio]