New Netflix Series Has Arkansas Sheriff In Hot Water After Being Filmed In County Jail

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An Arkansas sheriff faced scrutiny from lawmakers after he decided to green-light a Netflix documentary series to be filmed at a county jail.

Pulaski County Sheriff Eric Higgins, the county’s first Black sheriff, stood his ground about allowing the film crew of the Netflix series Unlocked: A Jail Experiment inside county jail walls. The eight-episode series, which premiered in April, shines a light on a six-week experiment that allows inmates in one cellblock more freedom by unlocking their cell doors.

As Higgins pointed out, Netflix and Lucky 8, the production company behind the series, approached him about it, and local and state officials waved red flags as they claimed they were not aware of the series until a short time before its premiere. The sheriff told the Joint Performance Review Committee members that he “took action to ensure that we have a reentry program to help those who are booked into our facility to come out and be better individuals.”

However, one critic, Republican Sen. Jonathan Dismang, wasn’t buying it, saying the series exploits inmates.

“I think it’s an exploitation of your prisoners that you allowed a film crew to come in,” Dismang said. He doesn’t have an issue with the program but questioned how the program was being labeled an experiment if it was being filmed.

Fellow conservative lawmaker Rep. David Ray raised concerns about the damage the show could do to the state’s reputation, comparing it to a 1994 HBO documentary about gangs in Little Rock.

“For most of the people that watched this docuseries, this is the first time they’ve ever been exposed to Pulaski County, or perhaps to the state of Arkansas,” Ray said. “I worry about the brand damage that our state sustains from this being the first perception of our state to other people.”

However, Higgins, a Democrat first elected in 2018, has some support from those on the same political side. 

During a hearing on May 21, the Little Rock chapter of the NAACP supported Higgins and other supporters who filled the room. Sen. Linda Chesterfield said the sheriff’s supporters want someone “to provide humane treatment for people who have been treated inhumanely.” “We are viewing this through different lenses, and it’s important we respect the lenses through which we view it,” she said.

However, Pulaski County Judge Barry Hyde—the county’s top elected administrator—said he was unaware of the series and labeled the agreement illegal because he never signed it, according to WHEC

A $60,000 check from the production company has since been returned from the county.

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