Netflix's new series 'First and Last' accurately details many aspects of county jail life
I promise I watch other things besides Netflix. I know it might not seem like it, judging from the content of my last few columns, but it really is true. Netflix just so happens to have created a lot of new content lately, and much of it focuses on crime and associated topics in the law.
Being a criminal defense attorney, I normally don’t care for the dramatic, fictional portrayals of my profession. I mostly stay away from that, as my daily life is enough legal “entertainment” to fill an entire day. I focus more on the true crime genre and the documentaries that attempt to give laypeople a glimpse into the legal world.
Netflix knows where its bread is buttered, and they have consistently released quality crime-related content on a fairly regular basis. One of their most recent original docuseries—First and Last—does not disappoint. It is eye-opening entertainment for those who are interested. It won’t likely draw in any borderline fans to the genre, but it will satisfy those looking for a fix.
WELCOME TO GWINNETT COUNTY JAIL
Viewers are almost immediately introduced to the series’ premise: “In the jail system, there are two days that will change your life forever. Your first—and your last.”
First and Last is set in Gwinnett County, Georgia—just outside the city limits of Lawrenceville, about 30 miles north of Atlanta. It focuses on the Gwinnett County Jail, which is touted by the staff as one of the largest jails in the country. According to the show, the facility is “roughly just under a million square feet” and big enough to fit “20 full-size football fields.” The facility is classified as a pretrial detention center, and approximately 35,000 to 37,000 individuals are incarcerated in the jail over the course of a year.
Gwinnett County itself only has a population of approximately 920,260. I’ll let you do the math.
The series is an anthology of sorts, as the separate episodes are standalone observations of different inmates at different times. Each episode ends with an update regarding the status of the individuals who were the subject of the episode. Some do well, some don’t. Many are still waiting for trial.
As I watched, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the series suffers from some sort of pseudo Hawthorne effect—that the participants were only acting a certain way because they knew they were being observed. All of the guards seemed to be on their best behavior, and many of the inmates were definitely playing to the cameras. In my previous column, I discussed the possibility of goal-oriented behavior being influenced to achieve a certain result, and the two factions (guards and inmates) potentially taking on their perspective roles for the camera seems to follow in that thread.
IS THE SERIES A REFLECTION OF THE REAL COUNTY JAIL EXPERIENCE?
I’ve never been to the Gwinnett County Jail, so I can’t speak to the practical reality portrayed in the Netflix production. As noted above, it’s easy to argue that the guards are likely on their best behavior in front of the cameras (there is no physical violence apparent—even though there were real-world allegations of violence against inmates at that facility as recently as August 2018). Still, the guards are not really the focus of the show. The team behind the series went to great lengths to explain the working parts of the jail and the specific processes that apply to all of its occupants.
It’s probably apparent from the title that the show emphasizes the first and last days of an inmate’s stay in county jail. Consequently, the episodes spend a good amount of time examining the intake and booking procedure. This aspect provides some of the most entertaining, and equally disheartening, realities of those who find themselves behind bars.
Viewers have to remember that Gwinnett County Jail is just that: a county jail. That means almost all the inmates are coming in off the streets. Don’t get this confused with a prison. You can think of county jail as a kind of lockup purgatory. If everything turns out in your favor, you’ll end up in the good place (back outside). If things don’t work out, then you’re headed for the bad place (prison).
Individuals are brought in by law enforcement and booked into the jail. They are fingerprinted, their pictures are taken, and they are given a wristband for identification purposes. At the Gwinnett County Jail, inmates are given 48 hours to bond out before they are required to dress down into jail garments. During that first 48 hours, they are allowed to move about the common area, and they are given free access to the phones for the purposes of calling someone to post bond.
The bonding process explained in the series seems to be pretty spot on. Individuals are given a bond when they first arrive (as long as they are eligible). That bond can be paid via either cash (in the full amount) or by a bonding company that will charge a certain percentage to act as a surety for the full amount. Bondsmen usually charge somewhere around 10 percent of the total bond.
Most individuals are released through the bonding process. However, those who don’t bond out can expect to complete processing, where they are assigned a cell and—sandwiches, lots and lots of sandwiches. Meat, cheese (sometimes), and bread is a staple of many county jails. But it’s all part of the routine, and routine is important. The series details the simple things some individuals make part of their daily habits while in jail. Part of that is simply for comfort. Routine offers inmates some semblance of control in an environment where that aspect has been stripped away.
In larger jails, there is usually a commissary where inmates can buy their own personal supplies (including food). These choices greatly increase the variety of cuisine, and they add to the control factor. Not every jail has a commissary, though. Hell, not every jail even has sandwiches. I have been to some where the main course is beans.
It’s all relative, though. Not every county jail is the same, for better and for worse.
THE PROBLEMS FACING COUNTY JAILS
Oklahoma County jail is sadly on the “worse” end of that spectrum. I’m a criminal defense attorney, and my offices are located in Oklahoma County. I can tell you firsthand that the jail is facing serious problems associated with overcrowding and understaffing. In fact, the jail has been under the watchful eye of the federal government since 2009, when the United States issued Oklahoma County a memorandum of understanding to address the federal investigation into the jail. Many of the issues and concerns have been addressed since then; however, the federal government still plans to conduct another inspection this year.
While watching First and Last, I couldn’t help but compare the different jails in Gwinnett and Oklahoma County. There’s quite a difference between the two. Gwinnett County Jail looked like a fine facility as far as jails are concerned. It looked clean, the inmates’ clothing was not too worn and weathered, and the amenities at least looked as though they were kept up.
Oklahoma County isn’t the worst jail I’ve been to in Oklahoma, but it obviously has many serious issues if the federal government is still looking into it after a decade. It is ridiculously overcrowded, although steps are being taken to rectify that situation. There have been a surprising number of deaths over the past two years in the jail. The plumbing and the sewage systems are horrible—so horrible that they affect the rest of the city.
I wasn’t able to find any reliable statistics regarding Oklahoma County’s current yearly inmate headcount, but it has to be at least close to Gwinnett County’s. When the federal government first started looking into the Oklahoma County jail, they reported:
“It is thirteen stories tall and was originally designed to hold 1,250 detainees, but held 2,543 detainees at the time of our April 2007 tour. The Jail has a daily detainee/booking of approximately 125 detainees and an average annual detainee/booking of approximately 44,000 detainees.”
There have been efforts from the Oklahoma City Police Department to lower the inmate population by declining to incarcerate individuals for certain low-level municipal violations. Consequently, Oklahoma County might not match Gwinnett County’s yearly booking number today. But you also have to take into account that it is smaller with an estimated population of only 787,958. Still, Oklahoma County has to process a very large number of inmates. Why? Because Oklahoma County is the largest county in Oklahoma. Just this year, Oklahoma finally surpassed Louisiana as the state with the highest incarceration rate in the U.S. If Oklahoma is now “the world’s prison capital,” then its largest and most populous county surely has a hand in achieving that sad statistic.
THE PROBLEMS FACING THOSE IN COUNTY JAIL
Although all county jails are not created equal, there is still a common tie that binds. First and Last shows that regardless of the facility, the majority of any county jail’s population will most likely suffer from many of the same issues. All over the country, substance abuse and mental health are the underlying causes of many arrests.
Quite a few of the inmates the series follows are in jail based on an alcohol or drug offense. When the series focuses on an inmate’s last days, there is almost always a discussion about addiction. So many inmates talk about relapse and how afraid they are to face their addiction and all of the temptations beyond the jail’s walls. Others are excited to drink or get high and plan to do so as soon as they are released.
Regardless of whether they swear off their addiction or run headfirst toward it, everyone acknowledges their struggle. Very few of the inmates profiled deny addiction if and when questioned about it. One would think that county jail is a good way to help individuals stay clean. Some of the inmates admit that their prolonged stay in county jail is the longest they have been clean in recent memory.
Some of the inmates swear to change their ways and stay on the straight and narrow once they are released. Sadly, many of the inmates who make that pledge end up right back in county jail. Perhaps that is the most thought-provoking angle of the series: the show focuses on the first and the last days of county jail inmates, but some of them never really leave. They just seem to take a momentary vacation.
Adam R. Banner is the founder and lead attorney at the Oklahoma Legal Group, a criminal defense law firm in Oklahoma City. Mr. Banner’s practice focuses solely on state and federal criminal defense. He represents the accused against allegations of sex crimes, violent crimes, drug crimes, and white collar crimes.
The study of law isn’t for everyone, yet its practice and procedure seems to permeate pop culture at an increasing rate. This column is about the intersection of law and pop culture in an attempt to separate the real from the ridiculous.