Categories: Movie News

Netflix’s Unlocked: A Jail Experiment Paid Inmates — But Not Much

Published by
Tim Molloy

Unlocked: A Jail Experiment has been the top show on Netflix almost since its release earlier this month. Normally, the stars of a hit Netflix show might expect to make some decent money.

But Unlocked is not a normal show. Almost everyone in the cast is an inmate at the Pulaski County Regional Detention Facility in Little Rock, Arkansas.

At the start of the series, Sheriff Eric Higgins, who controls the jail, proposes a radical idea to deal with overcrowding and prepare inmates for eventual release to the outside world — opening cell doors so that inmates can move freely through the jail, a reversal of the previous policy in which they were locked up in cells 23 hours a day.

Because of his decision, we spend the series with a series of photogenic inmates. They include Randy Randall, aka True Story, who tries to set rules within the new system; Krisna Piro “Tiny” Clarke, who longs to see his son again; and John “Eastside” McCallister, who was arrested for robbing a pet store (and received a penis bite in the process).

Many states, including Arkansas, have so-called Son of Sam laws designed to ensure convicted criminals do not profit from their crimes — through book or movie deals, for example. The laws get their name from David Berkowitz, the so-called Son of Sam killer. New York lawmakers passed a law in the late 1970s to ensure he wouldn’t profit from his crimes amid speculation that he could get a book or movie deal.

In Arkansas, the relevant law is Arkansas Code Annotated 16-90-308, which involves the “proceeds from sale of rights arising from criminal act.”

The Arkansas Democrat Gazette has reported that those who participated in Netflix’s Unlocked: A Jail Experiment received $75 from Lucky 8 that they could be used to purchase snacks and other items from the prison commissary.

That may not sound like much to people on the outside, but Unlocked makes clear that small amounts of commissary money feel like a windfall behind bars.

Were the Payments to Jail Inmates for Unlocked: A Jail Experiment Legal?

Local officials who object to Higgins’ opening the cell doors — and opening the jail to a documentary crew — are scrutinizing every aspect of the arrangement.

Whether the $75 payments could be an issue depends on several factors. First, some of the people jailed at Pulaski were not convicts, but were simply awaiting trial. The law is written to apply to people who have “been convicted of or pleaded guilty or nolo contendere.”

There’s also the question of whether they are selling the story of a criminal act, or selling the story of their life behind bars.

And there’s the question of whether anyone will want to make hay over relatively small payments.

A representative for the jail did not immediately respond to a request for comment from MovieMaker.

Were Guards and the Jail Paid?

Yes. The Arkansas Times notes that on Feb. 22, 2023, a sheriff’s lieutenant advised jail personnel that they could be paid $40 an hour to provide “security” while the Lucky 8 filmed in the jail’s H-Unit, the setting for Unlocked. The money was to be paid by the production company.

County officials say Higgins first proposed the idea of unlocking cell doors in late 2021, but that negotiations with Lucky 8 broke down. But in 2022, Higgins entered into the location release agreement with the production company, which allowed filming to go ahead.

Additionally, under the terms of a location release form signed by Higgins and Greg Henry, a producer for Lucky 8 TV Inc., which produced Unlocked, the jail received $1,000 for each day of filming. That amount came to $60,000, which Higgins turned over to the county on March 28, according to Little Rock TV station KATV.

What’s Next?

Pulaski County officials are currently at odds over several elements of the show. County Judge Barry Hyde, who asserts that only he can make contracts on behalf of the county, believes that Higgins did an end run around that rule by signing the location release form — which Hyde contends is a contract.

Higgins himself has not been paid for appearing in the documentary series. But he has received bountiful publicity for the case he tried to make with the experiment: That inmates should be given more freedom and responsibility to prepare them for the freedom and responsibility of life beyond bars.

“In this country, we have a certain perception of someone who goes to jail — the assumption being that they’re guilty,” he told Netflix’s promotional site, Tudum.

“But they deserve dignity. These individuals, they’re fathers, they’re uncles, they’re sons. People care about them… they’re not just a number. I believe that if you treat people right, and you hold them accountable… I think they take that with them when they walk out of this facility. I think we have proven that people will rise to the expectation.”

Main image: Randy Randall, aka True Story, in Netflix’s Unlocked: A Jail Experiment.

Tim Molloy

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