Review: An Arkansas Jail Unlocked the Cells. Did it Work?

A new Netflix documentary series shows what happened when inmates were free to roam the cellblock with no guards in sight.


In the first episode of Netflix's latest hit documentary series, Unlocked: A Jail Experiment, an inmate with newfound autonomy says, "There's no way we can let criminals govern themselves." But for six weeks, 46 inmates at Arkansas' Pulaski County detention center did just that.

No longer confined to their cells for 23 hours a day, they were free to roam the cellblock with no guards in sight, all day long. And upon good behavior, they were given even more privileges, such as free phone calls and increased visitation rights with family and friends. By cultivating a community-driven atmosphere, the sheriff encouraged the inmates to take more responsibility and ownership over their space.

To be clear, this new freedom did not stop fights within the cellblock between rival groups. But many inmates came out of the experiment grateful to be given an opportunity to prove themselves capable of handling increased levels of autonomy.

Nearly 2 million people are incarcerated throughout the U.S. in an ineffective prison system. Experiments such as the one conducted in Pulaski (which involved Netflix paying the county $60,000 for the right to film in its prison) should be encouraged to figure out how to make prison time better for inmates and for society.