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A Jail Experiment’ Real? Controversy Behind Netflix Show


Netflix viewers get a rare look at the inside of an Arkansas prison in the streaming service’s latest hit series, “Unlocked: A Jail Experiment.”

Since premiering on April 10, the show has quickly captivated viewers and became Netflix’s number one series. However, the show, and the making of it, has also created a bit of controversy.

Ready to hear what all the hype is about? We’re breaking down everything you need to know.

What is ‘Unlocked: A Jail Experiment’ about?

The series follows a group of inmates at Pulaski County Regional Detention Facility in Little Rock, Arkansas as they take part in a social experiment. 

Netflix describes the series as an “exploration of what happens when unit cells are unlocked for six weeks, and detainees create community and structure for themselves.”

According to documents viewed by and shared by the Arkansas Times, production company Lucky 8 Productions “reached out” to Pulaski County Sheriff Eric Higgins for the project. The production company “felt he would be a good candidate” after “seeing his stance on reentry.” 

Higgins told Netflix’s Tudum he was inspired to run the experiment because he was worried about “high recidivism rates” and “dismal conditions” of local jails.

“The goal was to determine if more autonomy and less control in jails can lead to a more community-oriented living environment and better support one of the fundamental purposes of incarceration: discouraging people from committing future crimes,” he said in Tudum.

"Unlocked: A Jail Experiment."
Viewers get to know several men at the Pulaski County Regional Detention Facility.Netflix

What was involved in running the experiment?

Prior to the experiment, deputies were stationed inside prison units with detainees, with varying security levels. The “Unlocked” experiment reduced the amount of direct supervision.

“We thought, ‘What can we do to create some ownership for those detainees in that unit?” he 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 removing deputies from the unit, creating a tier-based structure that rewards good behavior and installing monitors to create outside supervision. 

Participation was optional, per Higgins.

"Unlocked: A Jail Experiment."
Security in the unit was much more extensive before the experiment.Netflix

What happened during the experiment?

"Unlocked: A Jail Experiment."
Viewers see the highs and lows of the experiment in the series.Netflix

 Detainees were left to decide how to run their unit.

“They each have their own issues, whether it’s court, their charges, their contact or lack of contact with family members, their lack of support… all of those things are coming into play,” Higgins said. “They stepped up. They recognized that they can improve their environment. And the majority of the people in the unit did the right thing from Day 1.”

Higgins said he thinks the experiment was a success.

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

What is the controversy surrounding the show?

"Unlocked: A Jail Experiment."
Viewers can’t get enough of the intriguing series.Netflix

There’s an ongoing debate as to whether Higgins had the authority to grant permission to film inside the detention facility.

Legal documents viewed by and shared by the Arkansas Times show that Higgins signed an agreement with a production company called Lucky 8 TV in 2022.

As reported by the Arkansas Times, county officials say Higgins did not have the authority to sign a contract on behalf of the county. Only the county judge can bind the county to a “legally enforceable agreement,” per Pulaski County attorney Adam Fogleman.

In an interview with Arkansas’ Democrat-Gazette, Higgins called the document he signed a “location release” instead of a contract and acknowledged that he can’t sign a contract for the county.

Lucky 8, the production company, sent Pulaski County a check for $60,000 for filming, per documents viewed by 

Lieutenant Antonio Waters and Deputy George Belt were given compensation for providing off duty security to Lucky 8 staff at a rate of $40 an hour.

Documents do not indicate prisoners were compensated for their appearance. has reached out to Fogleman, Higgins and Lucky8 for comment and has not heard back at the time of publication. 

How have viewers reacted to the show?

"Unlocked: A Jail Experiment."
Higgins considered the experiment a success.Netflix

After watching the new series, many viewers took to social media to share their reactions.

“It’s incredibly thought-provoking and eye-opening. Definitely worth a watch!” one X user wrote.

Another said the experiment gave them “hope for the prison industrial complex.”

Of course, some viewers were skeptical at first.

“Now watching — Unlocked: A Jail Experiment. Not them turning prison into a reality show set. What is going on,” one wrote.

Despite their reservations, most people were more far too intrigued to look away.

“Do I think it’s a bad idea? Yes. Am I about to start watching? Also yes,” one X user commented.


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