"It doesn't matter what your situation is. You're a criminal once you come through those doors." That's how Angela, 62, describes her (fortunately very short) stint at Gwinnett County Jail in Georgia. Angela was not, it turns out, a criminal. Yet in the six-part Netflix documentary First and Last, she discovers that simply being accused of battery is enough to be treated very badly indeed.
First and Last gets its title from its unique storytelling focus: It documents the experiences of men and women when they are first brought to the jail, as in Angela's case, or in their last hours before release. As such, each episode gives an isolated slice of what the criminal justice system looks like. In Gwinnett County—and there is no reason to believe that county is unique—it's nothing for a nation to be proud of.
For the first 48 hours, Angela's freedom depends on whether she can come up with $1,300 for bond. That amount is based on preset bail schedules, removed from any questions about whether she is a danger to others or a flight risk.
Many of those serving sentences at the jail are there for petty crimes, often drug-related, for which there are no identifiable victims. More than one person is serving a sentence from 30 to 180 days for possessing marijuana, a substance that is legal for Americans in many parts of the country.
The documentary is curiously silent about a class-action lawsuit accusing the jail's guards of pervasive use of excessive force against inmates. And it fails to consider a vital question when it comes to the American penal system: whether any of these people should have been arrested in the first place.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "First and Last".