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A new series examines life in U.S. prisons and aims to reach people living it

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

When Lawrence Bartley was released from prison five years ago, he linked up with The Marshall Project and started reporting on the criminal justice system. Now he's hosting a new show that is airing weekly inside prisons and jails in 48 states.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "INSIDE STORY")

LAWRENCE BARTLEY: This is "Inside Story," the only show about the system by people who lived it. I'm Lawrence Bartley.

CHANG: When I spoke with Bartley, he explained to me that including the perspectives of formerly incarcerated people just makes for richer coverage of the prison system both for the public who can see the show online and for the people on the inside.

BARTLEY: There are many incarcerated people that read our journalism and news inside or see "Inside Story" and kind of pump their fists in the air like, finally someone is telling the truth. Finally we're seeing exactly what's happening. And this is my story.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, let me talk about you for a little bit. You served about 27 years in prison overall for multiple convictions, including murder. You were only 17 when you were sent to prison.

BARTLEY: Yes, that's correct.

CHANG: OK. Let me ask you, how do you think entering prison when you were so young - how do you think that shaped the way you see the criminal justice system today?

BARTLEY: When you're a 17-year-old going in, you're just conditioned to think that adults are there to protect you. But I found that adults weren't there to protect me most of the time - plopped in a situation where I had to learn how to shave. I had to learn how to be a man and navigate the system in a way that was very traumatic to people like me who was young as I was. But once I was able to get a hang of it in a way that I can survive, then I figure out different defense mechanisms and how to cope with my situation. And that was education.

CHANG: Well, thank God that experience in many ways strengthened you, especially as a journalist. Your first episode delves into how children are treated inside prisons. And, you know, something the lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson said really stuck with me. He was talking about how if a society is going to incarcerate children, it should believe in their ability to change.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "INSIDE STORY")

BRYAN STEVENSON: And I think to take away someone's possibility for growth and change is irresponsible. It's punitive without purpose. And a system that punishes people without purpose is a system that loses its legitimacy.

CHANG: You know, Lawrence, I was curious because listening to an interview like this one with Bryan Stevenson and other interviews throughout this series - was it difficult to get correctional facilities on board to air these shows? - because in many moments, these shows encourage us to think critically about the way society treats people who are incarcerated.

BARTLEY: Yes. There's so many different prisons and jails. And the way the rules are set up, they have the discretion to say what they can let in and what they won't. You know what I mean? But the people who run the facilities are meant to follow those. And a lot of times, there's some of them who don't really agree with those rules. So it is my hope that creating a series like this that we have some of those people who are in a power to say yes or no - to look at it and say, let me look at the way I'm running my facilities to see how it stacks up against what's in this episode. If it's consistent with what's in this episode, I'm hoping that the inherent good in people will say, well, I need to make some change. And I'm not going to block the episode from coming. And I'm going to let people see it.

CHANG: Did you encounter any resistance to airing these shows inside certain prisons, or have any correctional facilities tried to exert editorial control over the content of any of these episodes?

BARTLEY: They cannot. They cannot exert editorial control at all.

CHANG: Did they try to have any?

BARTLEY: No, they haven't tried. But there have been some states that have said that, oh, no, I don't think we want this inside of our facility 'cause it's kind of critical.

CHANG: Yeah. You sit down in the third episode with two Baltimore City police detectives known as Dre and Big H, Andres Severino and Ralph Horton. They both host a podcast called "The Silverback Chronicles," and you had some pretty pointed questions for them about interrogations. And I just want to play a little of one exchange where you reflect on your own experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "INSIDE STORY")

BARTLEY: When I was arrested, I said, I want a right to remain silent. They said, yeah, all right. You're going to get your [expletive] in there, and I'm ready to whoop your mother...

RALPH HORTON: Yeah. That policing culture - it [expletive] it up for everybody...

ANDRES SEVERINO: Everybody else.

HORTON: ...Because there's always an old-school police culture. There's always an old-school business that people just were under and they followed. And that was just how things were done. And that's - and it's horrible. It really is horrible even today.

SEVERINO: We're sorry that you went through that.

HORTON: That's ridiculous.

SEVERINO: It's tough to hear. But...

BARTLEY: Appreciate that.

CHANG: And then Detective Horton goes on to make the point that police reform has been huge - that's his word - that things are changing in police departments in terms of how they treat the people they interact with. Let me ask you, Lawrence. As you have worked with The Marshall Project and reported out stories for "Inside Story," have you come away with that same impression?

BARTLEY: Well, no. When you see what happened with Tyre Nichols in Memphis, that highlights that things haven't changed. We see over and over again people being killed by police officers, and not much happened to them. Sure, what happened to Derek Chauvin, him being sentenced - that was a step. But there are other people who felt like they don't get justice. So I won't say that the system is not making steps towards change. But I will say the system has a long way to go.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, in one of the recurring features in this series, I love that you also profile formerly incarcerated people who have gone on to lead really productive lives, like Fernando Ruiz, who's an executive chef in Santa Fe now, and Luenell, the comedian.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "INSIDE STORY")

LUENELL: I've talked about the strip searches and the degradation of that. And then from the mindset of the person doing it, like, do you know if they're just trying to be professional or if they're trying too much or - you know, you don't know what's going on in their head. And then the mystery meat with - what is this? - pimento and olive loaf. What the - you know? Yeah, there was a lot of comedy that I drew from being in jail.

CHANG: Well, Luenell's been on the HBO show "Hacks." She's reportedly got a Netflix special coming up. It made me feel that your series - it isn't just about informing people in prison about the criminal justice system. It's also about giving them hope.

BARTLEY: Absolutely. You know, people who are incarcerated, including myself - I was told over and over again how horrible I was. But no one tells us that you can be a Luenell.

CHANG: Yeah.

BARTLEY: No one says you could be a Chef Ruiz. You know, we've heard tons of feedback from people who are formerly incarcerated or even people who normally thought of people who commit crimes as folks that should never return back to society, an afterthought, just horrible people and are now kind of softening and looking at people as people. Sure, they committed some bad acts that got them there. But let's give them an opportunity to be people because 95% of people who are incarcerated are coming out some day. And this series opens their eyes to what's possible for them. It allows them to dream, and it allows them to prepare right now from where they are to becoming someone everyone else thought they couldn't be.

CHANG: Like becoming another Lawrence Bartley.

BARTLEY: (Laughter).

CHANG: Lawrence Bartley is co-creator of the new series "Inside Story" in partnership with Vice News and The Marshall Project. Thank you very much for sharing this time with us, Lawrence.

BARTLEY: Thank you, Ailsa. Thank you so, so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Sarah Handel
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.