Sheriff faces questions from Arkansas lawmakers over Netflix series filmed at county jail

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Arkansas lawmakers on Tuesday raised questions about a sheriff’s decision to allow a Netflix documentary series to be filmed at the county jail, with one critic saying the move exploited inmates.

Pulaski County Sheriff Eric Higgins defended the decision to allow the series, “Unlocked: A Jail Experiment” to be filmed at the county jail. The eight-episode series, which premiered last month, highlights a program giving some inmates more freedom at the Little Rock facility.

The decision has prompted scrutiny from local and state officials, who said they weren’t aware of the series until shortly before its premiere. The series focuses on a six-week experiment that gave inmates in one cellblock more freedom by unlocking their cell doors. Higgins said he did not approach Netflix or Lucky 8, the production company that filmed it, about the series.

“I 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,” Higgins told members of the Joint Performance Review Committee.

Republican Sen. Jonathan Dismang said he doesn’t have a problem with the sheriff’s reentry program or trying something new to address recidivism. But he said he was concerned with it being the focus of a show, and questioned how it could be considered an experiment if it was being filmed.

“I think it’s an exploitation of your prisoners that you allowed a film crew to come in,” Dismang said.

Another Republican lawmaker said he was worried about what the show would 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,” Rep. David Ray said. “I worry about the brand damage that our state sustains from this being the first perception of our state to other people.”

Pulaski County Judge Barry Hyde — the county’s top elected administrator — said he wasn’t aware of the series until he saw a trailer before its premiere. Hyde has said that the agreement between the sheriff and the production company was illegal because Hyde didn’t sign it. The county has since returned a $60,000 check from the production company that filmed the series.

Higgins, a Democrat who was first elected in 2018 and is the county’s first Black sheriff, has had the backing of some community members. The Little Rock chapter of the NAACP has supported Higgins’ decision, and supporters of the sheriff filled a committee room for Tuesday’s hearing.

Democratic Sen. Linda Chesterfield said Higgins’ supporters are looking for “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,” Chesterfield said.

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