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  • Writer's pictureTaylor McNallie

Review of Unlocked: a Jail Experiment

A new series popped up on Netflix titled Unlocked: a Jail Experiment. The eight-part mini-series focuses on Pulaski County Regional Detention Facility (PCRD) in Arkansas, where those imprisoned are locked in their cells for 23 hours a day. This would be classified as a lockdown or solitary confinement. The idea behind the series is that Sheriff Eric Higgins wants to “experiment” by leaving the cells unlocked and removing guards from the unit, creating more “freedom” for those inside and an opportunity to build relationships with one another. Essentially, the experiment is an attempt at prison reform. Here are a few of my thoughts.

Jail vs. Prison

To start, there is a difference between jail and prison. Jail is typically a place you’re held if you are being processed, awaiting trial, or serving a short sentence. Essentially, it is a temporary holding space. Prison is where you are sent after being found guilty and where you serve your sentence. In Canada, detention or remand centres are used to hold people awaiting trial or people sentenced for short terms while federal penitentiaries hold people sentenced to longer terms. In 2021/2022, there were 14,695 people held in pre-trial/remand centers across Canada. In 2023, 77% of people in Alberta being held in custody had not been convicted or sentenced.

The Pulaski County Regional Detention Facility is a jail, which means the men in this series are being held as they await trial or waiting to be transferred to long-term facilities.

A look inside Pulaski County Regional Detention Facility

A standard cell, where people are held for 23 hours a day:

And this is Day Room, where people will spend their 1 hour of free time a day:

This is a standard layout of most jails, including here in Calgary - which I now know from experience, sadly.

The Liberal Solution of Reform

Sheriff Eric Higgins paints himself to be a “progressive” cop and questions: "What can we do to create some ownership for those detainees in that unit? How do we make the facility safer, and what can we do to still hold them accountable but empower them at the same time?" Some articles about the experiment even calling it a "radical attempt to transform incarceration." There were 3 main steps in his 6-week “experiment” that included unlocked cells, free phone calls, and more visitations from family members. The idea is that more autonomy and less control, along with more access to each other and loved ones, would lead those incarcerated within its walls to a path of healing. To the basic liberal, this is a solution. To those that know better, these reform pilot projects only further expands the role of prisons and policing in our society as it suggests their still needed at all, no doubt seeing more funding funnelled through these institutions so they can reach their "goals."

"Community policing, body cameras, and increased money for training reinforce a false sense of police legitimacy and expand the reach of the police into communities and private lives. More money, more technology, and more power and influence will not reduce the burden or increase the justness of policing." - Alex S. Vitale

As William Lovelace, a man being held at PCRD, said, “the prison should should focus on programs that help people get out of jail instead of being comfortable in jail.” If Sheriff Eric Higgins really wanted his “experiment” to work, perhaps he would have provided them with conflict resolution sessions, mental health support, opportunities to acknowledge and repair harm. Instead, he did the bare minimum of providing a false sense of “freedom” for people who may not ever get to experience such a thing in their lifetime while using the same carceral intimidation tactics as a way to prove that these “freedoms” can be taken from them at any moment should they act in “bad behavior.” This is reform: using surface level solutions to deeply rooted and systemic problems in order to maintain the status quo. There is no reforming this when the core function of policing remains in place.

"To reform a system is to adjust isolated aspects of its operation in order to protect that system from total collapse, whether by internal or external forces. Such adjustments usually rest on the fundamental assumption that these systems must remain intact — even as they consistently produce asymmetrical misery, suffering, premature death, and violent life conditions for certain people and places." - Dylan Rodriguez

The Disposability of Human Beings

In September 2022, Raymond Lovett killed a man at gunpoint at CHI St. Vincent North Hospital. Raymond was sentenced to life and in the show is being held at PCRD (he has since been transferred to a long-term prison). Though we don’t see much of Raymond, we learn that he struggles with severe depression, something that lands him in solitary confinement for suicide watch. Another man in PCRD acknowledges that he has “serious mental health troubles” and “they can’t keep doing this to him,” suggesting that his isolation is not providing a way for him to heal.

In 2014 it was estimated that on any given day, there are 850 offenders in solitary confinement in Canadian federal prisons. An article from 2021 says the annual cost of prison isolation units to be $2.8 million each. That’s over $2 billion a year to hold people in solitary confinement, $2 billion a year on a practice that has proven to show no benefits to the individual nor the community or communities impacted.

Half way through the “experiment,” a situation puts the unit on a 24-hour lockdown - a “reset,” as Sheriff Eric Higgins calls it. After the lockdown, everyone is made to take a vote of who they think is causing the most problems and that person was to be removed from the unit. Most likely, that individual would be placed into isolation. Think of it as Survivor: Jail Addition. Using isolation as both a tactic and solution to “bad behavior” is how carceral institutions and mindsets see humans as disposable. Solitary confinement and removing people from community causes irreparable mental and physical damage. We should all personally understand this by now as we live in year 4 of a pandemic that has kept us all, at some point, isolated from our loved ones. Medical research shows that "the denial of meaningful human contact can cause ‘isolation syndrome’, the symptoms of which include anxiety, depression, anger, paranoia, psychosis, self-harm and suicide." While reform seeks to maintain control and order, using more harm and punishment as a response to harm, Abolition seeks to respond to harm by aiming to transform the conditions that make violence possible in the first place, and recognizes that no human being is disposable.

The Acceptable Negro

When I first began the show, I do what I normally do when watching documentaries: looked for discussions happening online about it. Through that, I noticed that many people favored Randy Randall, aka True Story. As I watched, I understood why. Randy is a 45-year-old man who is being held for domestic assault and drug possession and appears to be the “calm and collected” one of the group who also tries to maintain order in the unit by taking on the job of policing others. As Colin Kaepernick explains, "the acceptable negro is a Black character who makes white people feel comfortable. -- a Black person who behaves in a way that is non-threatening to white people.” To those who continue to hold expectations as to how a Black person should act, Randy is the “acceptable negro” they’re looking for - one who upholds their idea of exceptionalism by being well-mannered and reasonable.

"Black folks stepping out of the box of behavior that makes most white folks comfortable is what makes some white folks uncomfortable. -- They believe black people are 'acting out,' acting in ways they think are inappropriate, acting with authority, acting without permission." - Rochelle Riley

Final Thoughts

There are no good prisons. There are no healthy prisons. There is no justice that comes from prison. Prison is an institution that aims to punish rather than heal the individual and the communities most impacted. We need solutions that prioritizes healing and centers humanity, working towards the best outcomes both for people within the criminal legal system and those outside of it. We cannot allow the abolition movement to be co-opted into liberal reforms.

If the state is on board with what you're advocating for, and how, you're doing it wrong.

"Reforms that leave policing’s core functions in place will not prevent state violence against Black people. To build a better society, we must abolish policing altogether." - Mariame Kaba


"Taylor McNallie dedicates her time to seeking racial justice and collective liberation through education and hands-on work with both marginalized communities and accomplices alike. As the co-creator of Inclusive Canada, she provides education on anti-racism, white supremacy, and anti-Blackness. She is also a member of the Walls Down Collective which provides access to no-barrier resources and care such as Harm Reduction, free food programs and an alternative to local policing."

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