Two men play a board game in jail in the Netflix series 'Unlocked: A Jail Experiment'

Will Controversy Keep Netflix’s New Number One Series From Getting a Second Season?

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the most popular series on Netflix right now is a reality show. However, you might be surprised to learn that said series has nothing to do with circles, dating, or proposing to someone sight unseen.

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Unlocked: A Jail Experiment, is—as the title says—about people in jail. Based on that information, it’s easy to assume that the controversy surrounding the Netflix series has something to do with promoting incarceration or exploiting its subjects. But Unlocked is a little more complex. The series was filmed in Block H of the Pulaski County Detention Facility in Arkansas, a jail for people currently awaiting trial. Sheriff Eric Higgins, a Democrat who supports prison reform and rehabilitative programs, chose Pulaski to conduct a novel experiment. Having observed that recidivism rates are lower in countries where prisons offer more personal freedoms, Higgins wanted to try something different.

“If all we’re doing is locking people up … that’s all we’re ever gonna do,” Higgins says in Unlocked. “There’s not gonna be a change in behavior.” Instead of locking people up for 23 hours a day, Higgins implemented a new system in which cell doors were left unlocked for most of the day and guards were relocated to an outer “pod” where they could oversee the jail block on CCTVs. The crew of Unlocked installed additional hidden cameras to capture what happened among the 46 prisoners, who were filmed from February to April of 2023. (They all agreed to be filmed for a reality series, but were not given specific details. In addition, no one who was accused or previously convicted of sexual violence was allowed to participate.)

People still had to return to their cells for regularly scheduled processes including headcounts and the delivery of medication and food items, and they were locked in their cells every night from 10PM to 7AM. Otherwise, they were allowed to roam the block freely. However, the trailer for Unlocked claims there were “no locks, no officers” for the duration of filming. And that’s the part that’s causing a bit of controversy in Arkansas, where local officials are outraged with Higgins for not making them aware of the series and his experiment, with several calling the move “reckless.” Some are also questioning whether an agreement Higgins signed with the production team was legal, or if he overstepped his authority.

Over the course of eight episodes, Unlocked: A Jail Experiment follows the people on Block H as they are given more freedom under Higgins’ new system. There are violent fights and illicit goings-on (including toilet wine and fake drugs—common fixtures in prison environments), but there are demonstrable improvements, too. One of the biggest hurdles for the program, Higgins himself explains, is that Pulaski is a remand facility where people are incarcerated temporarily while awaiting trial. This means that new people are frequently introduced, disrupting any sense of structure implemented among the prisoners. After some rough encounters with newcomers, Higgins worked with the men on the block to improve the system by adding a 30-minute orientation and instituting a strike policy; repeat offenders would be sent to a different block. It seems that Higgins’ experiment could have benefits for prison facilities where people are serving longer sentences.

Less than a week after its April 10 premiere, Unlocked has become the number-one series on Netflix, outranking recent hits including 3 Body Problem. While fans are already wondering if there will be a season 2, Netflix has yet to comment on the possibility, which may very well be hindered by the local controversy surrounding Higgins’ program.

(featured image: Netflix)


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Author
Britt Hayes
Britt Hayes (she/her) is an editor, writer, and recovering film critic with over a decade of experience. She has written for The A.V. Club, Birth.Movies.Death, and The Austin Chronicle, and is the former associate editor for ScreenCrush. Britt's work has also been published in Fangoria, TV Guide, and SXSWorld Magazine. She loves film, horror, exhaustively analyzing a theme, and casually dissociating. Her brain is a cursed tomb of pop culture knowledge.