by Chad Marks
NBC anchorman Lester Holt has been to many prisons as part of his news reporting. But he had never slept in a locked cell for a few nights – until he went to the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in April 2019.
Holt said he and others at NBC wanted to shed light on overcrowding in prisons throughout the U.S. As part of his plan to “go big,” he met with some of the 5,500 prisoners at Angola, most serving life sentences. Holt also joined them on a bus ride to the fields to pick crops, went to the hospice ward where he met dying prisoners and spent two nights in the closed cell restriction unit that houses unruly prisoners.
“For two nights I slept and to a limited extent lived like an inmate in Angola, housed in a tiny cell in the same facility where the most difficult inmates are kept, and chillingly just a few steps away from death row,” Holt said. “Journalism thrives on access. To understand the issues of criminal justice reform that are now riding atop a bipartisan wave, it was important to me to get close. And so I did.”
In 2016, Diane Sawyer briefly spent time at the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City, which some critics characterized as a publicity stunt.
“This wasn’t meant to be a stunt, it wasn’t ‘Lester Holt’ playing a prisoner,” Holt noted. “You have to recognize there are people who are trying to turn their lives around with the knowledge that 95% of prisoners are going to get out someday and we, as a society, need to listen to them and hear them.”
His brief time at Angola gave Holt and NBC viewers a small glimpse of what a life sentence in prison really looks like. People were able to see an elderly prisoner named Frank, so sick with cancer that he could not even open a butterscotch candy wrapper. Frank had been incarcerated for over 40 years and had succumbed to the reality that he was going to die in the prison’s hospice unit. After Holt opened the candy for him, he had to step out of the room wondering how no one could have compassion for someone like Frank.
Frank died before the show could air.
The public was also given a look at what an 83-year-old man looks like after being in prison since he was a teenager. And Holt and NBC brought the story of two elderly prisoners going before the parole board after spending nearly their entire lives in prison – over 50 years. One was granted release. The other was denied parole because one parole commissioner felt he needed more rehabilitative programs.
“During my visit I learned a lot about the value of hope, like the excitement generated when incarcerated men faced the parole board. I was surprised to see corrections officers quietly rooting for prisoners they thought particularly deserving of release,” Holt wrote. “Some even confided their disappointment when those inmates were turned down for parole, contrary to the adversarial relationship that exists between officers and inmates.”
He added, “All we can advocate is the truth. When you do these stories, it’s not necessarily with the intent of getting someone out of prison. You’re there to provoke conversations and thought to allow people to see things as they are and make decisions from there.”
Angola was not the only prison that Holt visited in an attempt to spur conversations about mass incarceration in America. He also visited a maximum-security facility in New York to host a town hall meeting on the criminal justice system, where he was joined by famed singer John Legend and former Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
When the United States leads the world in incarcerating more of its citizens than any other industrialized nation, telling the truth about a broken criminal justice system from the inside out makes sense – even if it provides only a brief look into the lives of prisoners who spend years, and sometimes decades, behind bars.
“On the outside, criminal justice reforms are often weighed against hard data points on recidivism risk and crime,” Holt stated. “Living on the inside, I found it to be a complex world filled with contradictions and still rooted in punishment but aspiring to be a place of rehabilitation. A work in progress that is now getting the attention it demands.”
Apparently more reporters need to go to prison – and spend more time there – so they can contribute to the public dialogue about crime, punishment and mass incarceration in America.
Sources: nypost.com, usatoday.com, nola.com, variety.com, nbcnews.com
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