Netflix Jail Documentary Misses the Big Question: Why Is This Happening?
First and Last ignores the absurdity that many of its subjects are imprisoned, not to mention Gwinnett County Jail's own troubled record.
Nobody in the Netflix documentary First and Last asks why Tyna, 20, and Keith, 23, are serving 180- and 30-day jail sentences entirely for personal marijuana use, or whether that's the appropriate response for consumption of a substance that is now legal in several states.
In fact, despite spending days documenting the lives of about two dozen people detained in Georgia's Gwinnett County Jail, First and Last is strangely incurious about the larger picture of America's incarceration problem. More troubling, the documentary is totally silent about serious accusations (and lawsuits) against the jail claiming abusive behavior by guards against people detained there.
First and Last, released on Netflix in September, gets its name from its gimmick: The six-episode docuseries focuses entirely on individuals as they are processed into the jail after being arrested and their final hours before they are released (and in some cases, what follows afterward).
The concept can be compelling when handled well. And at times, First and Last hits the mark, particularly when following folks like William, a homeless alcoholic who has been in the jail 46 times, who insists he's going to get clean and then almost immediately slips back into drinking after some passersby give him beer money at the gas station right outside the jail. Nobody needs to spell it out when we see guards confiscating all the toothpaste and soap that the other inmates have donated to William, and then releasing him in his filthy old clothes.
Mostly, though, First and Last cleaves closely to the familiar reality show documentary style seen on cable television. People who have been detained or are serving sentences talk to each other and to the camera about how the experience makes them feel. We witness what these moments in jail are like, and it certainly seems miserable. Nobody will come away from First and Last wanting to get arrested or seeing it as an inconsequential experience.
But reducing all these stories and experiences into brief slices of time also has the effect of completely removing valuable context that should make the viewer question why this system operates the way it does. When people get arrested and brought to Gwinnett County Jail, they are processed and bluntly given bail amounts based on a schedule connected to the criminal charges. If they cannot pay the money, they'll be processed into the jail as a prisoner and put in with the same population who are serving short sentences for low-level crimes. They are presumed innocent, and often are neither dangerous, nor have they even committed crimes where there are "victims." Nevertheless, if they can't find somebody to cover the bail requirement, or afford to pay a bondsman to cover it for them, they may end up in jail for days before even seeing a judge.
The thoughtless, mechanized nature of jail intake is highlighted by Angela, 62, who was arrested after a tenant in her home accused her of assault in a dispute. Angela says the man is a con artist who fraudulently accused her because she was going to throw him out. Her claim of innocence seems to be supported after she's released, when narration blandly informs us her charges were dropped and the man who accused her was subsequently arrested and brought to that very same jail.
But before can she go free, Angela's told she has to pay a $1,300 bond. She's thoroughly dehumanized (she was brought in wearing her bathrobe, having been arrested by police in the middle of the night, apparently) and says, "It doesn't matter what your situation is. You're a criminal once you come through those doors."
But Angela's not a criminal, and First and Last is mostly indifferent to the fact that half of the people they're documenting have not been convicted, merely arrested. One guard thinks Angela's anger at being arrested in the first place is hilarious. Nobody asks the guard what Angela, who has never been arrested before, is supposed to feel after being cuffed and caged over a petty argument, and then told she has to pay money to get out of jail.
A sad sack named Benjamin, 46, an unemployed and depressed alcoholic, is arrested for falling three months behind in his child support. He owes $4,600. So his bond is set for $4,600, higher than almost everybody else highlighted in the series, including some others arrested for assault. "I need help," he says. "This is not help. This is hell." Benjamin spends 22 days in jail because his brother won't help him bail out, insisting that this experience is some sort of tough love. Benjamin's brother instead helps Benjamin sell his home in order to pay the child support. Nobody asks whether there were ways to achieve this same outcome—paying child support!—without tossing Benjamin in jail.
The documentary does not engage in any way with the current push to abolish the use of cash bail as the sole means to determine who ends up stuck in jail prior to having their cases heard, even though nearby Atlanta is reforming its system to try to make it less harsh on the poor. The people who run the prison aren't asked about any of this.
Instead, the guards and employees at Gwinnett County Jail are often deployed as talking heads to explain how the system works. And it ends up leading to some strange moments where the viewer is left wondering if the jail's staff should be looking in the mirror before lecturing inmates. Cedric, 26, serving a short sentence for shoplifting, says he's bipolar and requested medication during his stint (he received none). A member of the jail's medical staff explains how the system provides treatment for inmates, but we never really get an explanation as to why Cedric never got his pills, other than a vague "falling through the cracks" reference.
And Cedric is far from the only Gwinnett Jail inmate complaining that his medical needs were ignored. The jail is also being sued by the family of Chris Howard, who died in the jail in 2017 after guards initially refused to give him medical treatment after a seizure caused by his extremely low blood sugar. Kira Lerner notes at The Appeal that there's a federal grand jury investigation into the behavior of Gwinnett County Sheriff R.L. "Butch" Conway's office.
Morgan, 19, sentenced to 30 days entirely for traffic violations (driving without a license and then a second charge later for speeding while he was on probation for the first charge), ends up serving much of his sentence in solitary confinement for "being disrespectful and standing at the door" to his cell. A member of the jail staff explains tells us why Morgan was put in solitary, considered by many human rights activists to be a form of torture, but nobody ever tackles the tough questions of proportionality, the danger posed by these disrespectful actions, or whether Morgan has a right to be surly.
"Worse than Guantanamo," reads the headline for a story at The Appeal, published on Monday, describing complaints by dozens of Gwinnett County detainees who say they were physically abused or subjected to excessive force by jail guards. The jail is being sued in federal court for its use of physical restraints and a SWAT-style "Rapid Response Team" that responds to those deemed "disruptive" with excessive force.
None of these complaints or problems are referenced at all in First and Last. A viewer of the series would have no idea that people have levied some serious charges about the way the guards behave. At no point does the series show the Rapid Response Team dealing with "disruptive behavior," nor is there any acknowledgement that such a team even exists. Rather, Conway and the jail staff are extended special thanks in the show's end credits.
The series also regularly name-drops Securus, the company who provides phone service to those detained at this jail and many other detention centers (and has recently gotten some bad publicity for allegations of recording phone calls between inmates and lawyers and for data breaches). Securus and the jail's phone systems are referenced frequently enough to feel like a form of product placement (and we are permitted to listen in to the phone calls of those who agreed to participate in the documentary). A representative from the company did not return a call from Reason to ask whether they played any role with the filming of the documentary. A media representative for Netflix's non-fictional shows also did not return an email requesting further information.
The conclusion of the series features a number of the detainees and prisoners talking about what they've learned from their time in the jail, with a heavy emphasis on "going straight" and fixing up their lives. At no point does anybody question whether these people should have been imprisoned for these minor misdemeanors, or even arrested, in the first place. The viewer is left with the unsettling feeling of the jail as an uncontrollable machine that is to be avoided, not a tool that's supposed to actually protect public safety. And maybe that's not the wrong message, given what else we know about what's going on in Gwinnett County.