Lester Holt spends Friday’s hourlong “Dateline” episode (10 p.m. on NBC) locked up in a Louisiana prison with some of the country’s most dangerous inmates.
Holt’s “incarceration” is part and parcel of NBC News’ weeklong, cross-platform “Justice for All” initiative, spearheaded by the “Nightly News” anchor and culminating in Sunday’s Town Hall at Sing Sing on MSNBC (10 p.m.).
“Over the last several years we’ve done a number of stories centered on criminal justice reform, and each time we do a story, we look under the rock and find there’s more and more to talk about,” says Holt, 60.
Holt says he and his team “wanted to go big” for the “Dateline” story — to shed some light on the problem of overcrowding in the nation’s prisons. “We thought, ‘What if we tell the story from the inside out?’ [and decided] that I would spend some time in a maximum-security prison and hear from the voices inside — and that’s what we did,” he says.
Holt ended up spending two nights and three days at the Louisiana Correctional Facility, commonly known as Angola, the country’s largest prison. “It’s notorious,” he says. “There are more than 6,000 men there, and Louisiana is one of the states that recognizes that mass incarceration isn’t working. They’ve locked up more people than any place in the country and it isn’t making them any safer.
“They really wanted to tell their story and we had unfettered access to pretty much wherever we wanted to go in the prison.”
Holt went into the Angola as himself — “This wasn’t meant to be a stunt, it wasn’t ‘Lester Holt’ playing a prisoner,’ ” he says. At night, Holt was locked (by himself) in a cell in the prison’s CCR (closed cell restriction area), which houses troublesome inmates and is adjacent to death row.
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“I was able to walk over to death row and speak to some of these guys,” he says. “Frankly, I felt safe virtually all of the time . . . the inmates seemed to appreciate that someone wants to hear from them, so we proceeded accordingly. I slept in a cell and experienced some of the life there, but I’ll never know what it’s like to be in a cell and know that’s the only place you’ll see for the rest of your life.”
Holt says the inmates were surprisingly receptive to him and the NBC camera crew. “They got used to me and we shot it in a way we don’t normally shoot — we didn’t use artificial lights and kept the cameras far back when I was speaking to them,” he says. “The whole idea was to allow for a more natural conversation. These guys have a lot of time on their hands and some are reforming, but some of the others — you don’t know who’s conning you and some of them have really interesting stories.
“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.”