First and Last approaches incarceration from a unique perspective, and while it’s sometimes a little heavy-handed, it’s nonetheless an eye-opening series.
There have been no shortage of documentaries about prison and prisoners, but Netflix’s new original documentary series, First and Last, which debuted today, approaches the topic from a relatively novel perspective.
Filmed at Gwinnett County Jail, a pre-trial holding facility in Georgia, U.S., the six-part documentary follows a handful of inmates, male and female, on a variety of charges, during their earliest and final moments of incarceration.
The stark contrast is what’s powerful about First and Last, and the episodes, which each focus on a couple of prisoners, present the anxiousness and panic right up alongside the elation and relief. This is also what leads to the series occasionally feeling slightly manipulative and heavy-handed, but for the most part it’s an effective tool for highlighting the differences and indeed similarities between those entering and leaving the facility.
Of course, everyone filing in declares their innocence – even though most of them are guilty. And everyone who leaves insists they’ll make changes that, as revealed by the episode post-scripts, they often don’t make. But that isn’t really the point of First and Last, which uses the format to open a murky window not just into the operation of a place like Gwinnett, but into the heart of a culture that incentivises illegal activity and self-destructive behaviour.
One of the most telling examples is found in the opening episode, as three men, one of them very young, are arrested after being pulled over in a car full of drugs and firearms. The two older men are familiar with the system, but the youngest, Alex, aka “Slim” for obvious reasons, is clearly petrified, not just of a potential punishment, but of inadvertently “snitching” by insisting that he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. It becomes clear throughout the episode, as he scrambles around for bond money and is threatened through the cell doors by his so-called accomplices, that he’s telling the truth. He admits the charge anyway, on the promise that he’ll be looked after – not that his sacrifice amounts to much. First and Last is full of these capsule tragedies that, rather than condemning the legal system, which is often the case in such things, condemns the culture that constantly resupplies that system with new offenders.
It’s easy not to feel sorry for obvious criminals, but it’s easier still to understand that in many cases these people are children, or victims of circumstance, or both. The subtext of First and Last is compassion; trying to understand not what these people have done, but what led them to do it, and what they might be doing instead. That’s why the scenes which follow the prisoners after their release, as they reunite with family and friends, are so important to what the series is trying to accomplish. As Alex himself says, to people from this kind of environment, the wrong place and the wrong time are any place at any time. He makes a good point.