In the last half of 2019, respected journalist and news anchor, Lester Holt of NBC, explored the American prison system by placing himself inside for three days. This was a new approach to examining American prisons as most reports on prison take an “outside-in” approach. He experienced day to day life as an inmate inside the United States of America’s largest maximum-security prison, the Louisiana State Penitentiary. The segment aired on Dateline NBC and was entitled “Dateline: ‘Life Inside’ Prison”. This blog post recalls Lester Holt’s experience and what he highlighted in the special report.
Louisiana State Penitentiary – Angola
The Louisiana State penitentiary is America’s largest maximum-security prison. The prison also goes by the name, Angola. Lester Holt and Dateline NBC chose Angola because at one point in time Louisiana was incarcerating more people than any other state, arguably more than any other place in the world. Angola was once a former slave plantation, and like in the days of slavery, inmates work is comparable to slaves in that they till the land every day and harvest crops for the institution where the land is on to be self-sufficient and feed its occupants. Today, it houses majority violent criminals convicted in the state of Louisiana.
Lester Holt’s Experience
Lester immediately noticed how most of the inmates belonged to the same racial group as he, Black. He also noted how he was surprised to see a sizable number of elderly inmates. Talking with other inmates, he also noticed how many inmates had a common thread, the search for hope and validation. They were introspective and trying to understand their purpose and how their life can still have meaning even though they’ve been removed from society, some for the rest of their lives.
While walking around, Lester also noticed how busy the inmates keep themselves. They all have jobs, and some are involved in vocational programs like auto repair. However, while they may be doing work similar to that found in our society, they are paid meager wages. Inmates told Lester that some of them make just a few cents an hour.
Another experience Lester Holt had was spending time on a cell block where inmates there are locked up 23 hours out of each 24-hour day. After only spending a night in these conditions, Lester admitted that the confines of the environment were already starting to frustrate him. He could not get adequate sleep as his bed was connected to his neighbor’s where he felt every toss and turn his neighbor did. He also heard the noises from the cell block all night long, such as conversations all around him by individuals who he does not know what they look like, smells from his neighbor’s bowel movements, and the constant flushing of toilets day and night.
Check out this video summarizing Lester Holt’s special report:
The main takeaway I believe that Lester Holt walked away from his experience inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary is the psychological and emotional toll it takes on inmates. Prison is not a place for rehabilitation, not how it is executed in the United States of America. Even though some former inmates come out and thrive, the vast majority are so traumatized from their experience being incarcerated that they are unable to assimilate and function in a healthy way once released back into society. There is hope, however, as a country we are making strides in terms of reform and understanding that we cannot remain a nation whose solution to crime is incarceration. Furthermore, if incarceration is still a tool we plan to utilize, it must go through a major overhaul and be reassessed for its efficacy in rehabilitating individuals and returning them back to our society.