The untold truth of Girls Incarcerated

Shelter-in-place orders due to the global pandemic caused by COVID-19 might make us feel like we’re in prison, but in reality, hanging out in the luxury of your own home is a far cry from what prison is actually like. Don’t believe us? Well, if you find yourself with some extra time on your hands, look no further than the Netflix series Girls Incarcerated: Young and Locked Up. While the series — a reality show-style look at the lives of teenage girls who are sent to juvenile detention centers — was short-lived, it still manages to generate buzz.

Rife with drama, yet heartfelt and honest at its core, Girls Incarcerated will give you an idea of what prison actually looks like and offer you a glimpse of how the system treats those who are forced to endure it, whether they deserve it or not.

So what’s the untold story behind the show? Let’s take a look.

Girls Incarcerated is an authentic take on the prison docudrama

If you’ve ever flipped through the channels on your television and landed on networks like MSNBC, A&E, or TLC, you’re probably aware of the “prison docuseries” genre – shows that use either an episodic documentary format or a reality TV format to take viewers inside detention facilities and penitentiaries in the United States and beyond. While some of them tend to use gimmicks to lure in viewers (Love After Lockup) or use ethically murky practices to pull in ratings (60 Days In), Girls Incarcerated takes a slightly different approach — one that makes it a standout among other shows like it (and a lot less exploitative). 

Girls Incarcerated focuses on a group of youths in two detention centers. The first season is set in Indiana’s Madison Juvenile Correctional Facility (Before its closure in 2018, it was considered one of the best rehabilitative facilities of its kind), while the second season focuses on a different cast at another Indiana juvenile facility known as LaPorte. Rather than salaciously framing the day-to-day of those featured in each season’s eight episodes or having the production team ratchet up the drama from behind the scenes, the makers of Girls Incarcerated rely on their interview subjects to tell their own stories. And if you go by what critics had to say about the Netflix series, it was a change in the right direction.

Girls Incarcerated won critics over in a major way

As Decider pointed out in its review of the show’s first season, the subject matter Girls Incarcerated dwells upon is one that’s often overlooked. Minors who are placed in the juvenile detention system “are often victims of a system stacked against them, and while some of them are able to start fresh and leave their locked up lives behind, others never get the chance.” The respective casts featured in each season of Girls Incarcerated are no exception.

This notion, paired with the sense of agency the makers of the show allowed their subjects to have — even while under lock-and-key — is what seemed to win critics over far and wide. New Yorker critic Doreen St. Felix elevated the Netflix show above others like it: “The series largely forgoes the macabre violence that one finds on MSNBC’s long-running prison reality series, ‘Lockup,’ and it lacks the judgmental tone of, say, MTV’s ‘Teen Mom,’ in which young mothers are presented as the saboteurs of the American family unit. ‘Girls Incarcerated’ is instead civil, empathetic; in some ways, this view of America, the prison nation, might even seem uplifting.” 

The faces of Girls Incarcerated tell their own stories

Girls Incarcerated gives names and faces to kids imprisoned by the system. Audiences have the opportunity to root for the cast members’ rehabilitation and re-entrance into society. The show can give you the feels while also revealing the hard realities that lead young people like these into the circumstances we find them in — circumstances that are sadly far too common.

While each girl’s story is worth an individual article, there are some standouts from each season that tug at the heartstrings. In the first season, we meet Brianna, a self-anointed “bad girl” whose anger threatens to curtail her release; Aubrey, a teen whose substance abuse sheds a light on the high rates of recidivism for those who make it out; Najwa, a two-year resident who completes the program but remains because she has no home to return to; and Taryn, a straight-A student and former cheerleader who asks to be sent through the system as penance after a car accident killed her best friend while she was behind the wheel.

Why was Girls Incarcerated canceled after two seasons?

Despite receiving praise from critics, Girls Incarcerated has not returned for a third season. The reason is not entirely clear. Netflix is rather elusive when it comes to releasing its streaming data, and though Cinemablend reported that the unscripted series would be canceled after a third season, Netflix has not released an official statement on the matter. 

Maybe that means there’s some hope for a Season 3? For what it’s worth, it took Netflix more than a year to drop the second season of the show into our feeds after the first season debuted.

Even if we never get another season of Girls Incarcerated, the first two seasons are definitely a worthwhile watch. The girls of Girls Incarcerated have important stories that need to be told, and the more of us that are here to listen to them, the better.

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