Plot: The Madison Juvenile Correctional Facility in Indiana is the home of Girls Incarcerated’s first season, an institution that houses young women, referred to as students, who have found themselves on the wrong side of the law. The teens aren’t serving timed sentences, but programs, which means good behavior and attempts at reformation are incentive. Even if the girls have a release date set, a relapse in their conduct can lead to a delay in getting out. These teens are mostly repeat offenders with charges for drugs, running away, fighting, and other conduct concerns, but at Madison, they’re offered a chance to turn things around. This eight episode series takes us inside Madison and inside the lives of some of the students.
Entertainment Value: This series offers a candid, in depth look at several young women in Madison’s reform program and while the show sheds light on the larger issues that plague these girls, Girls Incarcerated also takes the time to reveal the personal stories involved with each main student. To hear someone has had a rough life is one thing, but to hear them detail abuse of all kinds, absentee parents, environmental pressures, and a host of other concerns is a much more powerful experience. One girl was forced to endure an eight day binge of nonstop heroin, several were molested or raped, others are desperate for the family love they’ve never been given, and just about all of the girls feel trapped in a cycle, due in large part to the environments they live in. I appreciated that while the show looks into their pasts and charges, it also allows the personalities of the girls to shine through, for better or worse. This also lets us see how some of the girls change over time, which is a valuable element here. Most of the students have a good deal of charisma and are interesting to learn about and hear from, seeing the personal side to them adds a lot to this series. A lot of time is also devoted to the routine and programs inside Madison, as well as how officials and guards handle the girls and the day to day operations.
This documentary series packages some serious, relevant social concerns in a reality television wrapper, which is a double edged sword. The topics explored in Girls Incarcerated are crucial issues that need to be discussed, but the focus on drama at times could distract from those issues. But I also think the drama and colorful personalities of the girls will reel in viewers who might not watch a more traditional documentary series. So this first season winds up in the middle, with a lot of important social issues covered, but mixed in with a drama filled, reality television style approach at times. The show is an absolute binge watcher’s dream, as you’re pulled in from the first episode and once you’ve burned through the entire season, you still want more episodes to watch. The program bounces between students and leaves little lulls in the pace, so there are always several stories going on at once and of course, one of the girls is always on the verge of release. The episodes each pack in a lot of material and feel like self contained narratives, but each one also adds another layer onto the bigger picture of Madison and the issues these girls face. I think Girls Incarcerated is one of Netflix’s best shows to date.