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Unlocked: how this documentary can change the life in American Prisons

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Casper Libero chapter.

Unlocked cells, detainees living as a community, free calls, and no guards… Sounds like a utopic reality right? That happened in Unlocked, Netflix’s newest reality show, which introduces a social experiment that tries to improve the convicts’ sense of community and change how prisons “reform” detainees to the outside world.

The endless fighting in prisons was one of the main reasons for Sheriff Eric Higgins‘ decision to start the experiment. With his reputation at risk and the mission to change the reality of prisoners and their resocialization in the outside world, Higgins organized the whole dynamic that got distributed in 8 episodes with cameras all over the unit to get the best results.

USA’s prison system

When talking about incarceration and the prison system, we have to understand that the convict’s violent behavior is due to the 23/1 management, at least in this unit’s example, in which the imprisoned men get only one hour out of their cells. This pent-up frustration created in a tiny recluse space, with precarious conditions, transforms a person into an animal, whose only drive is surviving.

The situation worsens in bigger and overpopulated units, not so uncommon in the USA as shown in another Netflix production, 13TH, with the number of prisoners getting bigger and bigger, especially black men.

As shown in 13th, the detainees have a specific face: black men. When talking about the US prison system, we have to talk about racism and how it helped to build the actual reality of the incarcerated population. But that’s a discussion for another article… 

After all, would this experiment work on a larger scale?

The first impression is that this initiative would transform prisons into chaos, given the typical violent behavior. But by analyzing the evolution of all the characters on the reality show, we learn that every great invention comes with time and patience, something that the sheriff took in mind when organizing the dynamic.

When thinking about positive changes that could take place in prisons, Higgings thought of the main reason prisons were made for: reformation. But as released criminals reoffended and got back to prison, it was clear that the former idea wasn’t working out anymore, if it ever did. 

That led to changing one of the main obstacles of reformation, the lack of community behavior, which worsened detainees’ violence and, consequently, worsened their mental and physical health and moral ideals. This creates the perfect scenario for the crimes to be repeated, or even committing for the first time, as prisons are colleges of crime for some lower level crime felons.

Beyond this infinite violence cycle, society’s mindset toward people with criminal records is exclusionary, gatekeeping job prospects and an opportunity for a fresh start, limiting money acquisition and consequently leading them, again, toward crime. That is reinforced by Squirrel” reflection with “Crooks – Two of the prisoners in the unit –  about the institutionalization of the prison system and also, addiction and selling of drugs.

Did the social experiment work?

Notably, the group dynamic was positive for the detainees, because the environment became what a reformatory should be: each inmate’s evolution based on the exchange of experiences and group work dynamics for the good of the community. 

That’s proven by Crooks’s fear of getting out of jail. The reason? The social experiment worked so well in view of his drug addiction, by depriving and monitoring him away from drugs, that he feared not having self-control to continue his healing journey. Unfortunately, even after having progressed and sought help for his addiction, Crooks went back to prison in Florida.

Eastside, was another detainee who learned community behavior with his mistakes, being honest about his responsibility in hooch and cigars development and taking the blame, as he felt bad about the unfairness of all of his inmates taking the consequences of his actions.

This shows an improvement in their relationship, with camaraderie and mutual support so strong, that the insertion of new cellmates provoked an imbalance in the harmony created between them. Exactly like a common apprehension taken by a friend of groups with new integrants. 

What contributed to good behavior and commitment?

The implementation of privileges like an increase in family visits, watching TV, and free calls, gave back motivation and outside world contact to detainees, returning their human side, and then, helping their progress, like Tiny’s relationship with his son, consistently showing effort to keep reaching out and strengthening his paternal bond, his main motivation not to give up his resilience and collaboration in the community. 

A similar dynamic with privileges like possession of front door keys, watching TV, studying, praying, and walking freely, happens in Brazil, Minas Gerais. APAC is a prison inspired by reforming people to return to society, not punishing, following Eric Higgings mindset. 

The results were completely effective, as the cost per inmate was lower than in traditional penitentiaries and the recidivism rate was extremely low.

That’s a light at the end of the tunnel when resignifying prison systems around the world, especially in the USA, offering a future with security, better investment and money saving with detainees, and lower recidivism rates all over the country.

The whole Unlocked experience shows obstacles to overcome and imperfections to be improved, but it also shows that these initiatives create a new era in the prison system. Rome wasn’t built in a day, right?


The article above was edited by Julia Tortoriello.

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18-year-old brazilian journalism major at Cásper Líbero that writes about culture, behaviour and entertainment.