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Netflix Launches Hostage-Themed 'Captive'
December 9, 2016  | By David Hinckley

On the surface, the new Netflix docuseries Captive looks like the kind of crime-themed revisitation that we regularly see on Dateline, 48 Hours and various reality shows.

But at least one episode of Captive, which drops Friday on the streaming service, subtly and neatly delves into something deeper and more important than a single flashpoint.

Captive’s theme is high-profile hostage situations from the past several decades.

Producer Simon Chinn and executive producer Doug Liman, who was behind The Bourne Identity, frame these retellings with musical and verbal tension, fleshed out with historical perspective.

Besides drawing on contemporary news reports and footage, the producers have tracked down victims, families and in some cases the kidnappers or their associates as well.

While we don’t get too much of recent hostage situations, like with Middle Eastern terrorists, common threads run through every story, beginning with the question of exactly how to deal with the perpetrators.

Negotiating and cutting a deal may sometimes seem like the only way to save an innocent life or lives. On the other side, does letting kidnappers know they can use people as bargaining chips encourage future kidnappers to employ the same technique and thereby perhaps endanger more lives?

Captive doesn’t pretend to answer that larger question, treating each situation as a set of unique circumstances.

But the real value of this series may be best illustrated in the third episode, which covers a 1993 inmate rebellion at Ohio’s Lucasville prison.

The rebellion began on Easter Sunday and eventually involved about 450 of Lucasville’s approximately 2,100 prisoners. Nine inmates were killed, all of them suspected to be informants, along with one guard.

The inmates held out for 11 days, despite authorities cutting off water and electricity. While it was never definitively established who was responsible for the murders, five prisoners were ultimately sentenced to death – ironically, on the testimony of 32 other inmates who provided information in exchange for reduced sentences.

All five, incidentally, remain on Death Row today.

It’s a terrible story, tragic on every level. But as Captive follows it through, it becomes ever-clearer that the parallel tragedy is the whole state of our prison system.

When Lucasville was built in 1972, it was hailed as economic salvation for a depressed Rust Belt community. It created 400 jobs, for which there were 2,400 applicants.

Lucasville also had problems. The 10 guards who were taken hostage by the inmates had retreated to what was built as a safe room at the edge of one prison block. But the inmates simply took a hammer, knocked down a wall and entered. Security, clearly, wasn’t secure. 

On a larger ongoing scale, 2,100 inmates was 500 more than Lucasville was designed to hold.

That meant some inmates had to share tiny cells, exacerbating the problem of inmates congregating in large numbers. Gangs formed, including the Aryan Brotherhood and offshoots of the Crips and Bloods. Drugs by all accounts were rampant, and violence was a daily reality.

Art Tate, who was the warden at the time of the rebellion, recalled being sent to Lucasville to reestablish some order. In his first five days, he says, three inmates had their throats cut.

Tate tried cracking down by establishing stricter rules and eliminating programs. Tension rose.

The specific trigger for the rebellion was the resistance of Muslim inmates to a mandatory TB testing program, which the inmates feared would mean injecting them with a substance containing alcohol. That, they said, would violate their faith.   

But Captive makes it clear that the wider issue was the chaos and frustration, which for different reasons was shared by inmates and keepers.

If anyone had any delusions that the prison system was designed to provide rehabilitation, this portrayal of Lucasville should set them to rest. Nor is there any reason to believe Lucasville was or is an anomaly among large-scale American correctional facilities.

However little sympathy we have for criminals, locking everyone up and effectively throwing them away is clearly a system with consequences that aren’t good for anyone.

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