The NBC Nightly News anchor spent two nights inside Louisiana State Penitentiary for a criminal justice reform special

By Hanna Flanagan
September 04, 2019 11:44 AM
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Lester Holt is tackling prison reform from the inside.

The NBC Nightly News anchor spent two nights inside Louisiana State Penitentiary — the nation’s largest maximum security prison — for a Dateline NBC special on criminal justice reform and mass incarceration in America. Titled Life Inside, the documentary airs Friday.

“I’ve done a lot of criminal justice stories over the last several years and was trying to move into the next level,” Holt, 60, tells PEOPLE of his hour-long special (part of a network-wide initiative called Justice for All). “We knew we wanted to do something big in the criminal justice space. An idea was born, apparently among my bosses at Dateline, to put me in prison.”

He was admittedly hesitant in the beginning, but Holt says he was all-in once his safety concerns were addressed. He was attracted to the hands-on concept of Life Inside because he knew it would allow the public to “understand the nuances and key issues” of mass incarceration in America.

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“The important thing for me was that we didn’t go as some kind of a gimmick, that this would be a reporting device,” Holt tells PEOPLE. “We tried to be as unobtrusive with the cameras as possible, which allowed me to have organic conversations with people. I think we built a level of trust with those we spoke with.”

The prison Holt stayed in — better known as Angola — is notorious for its history of brutality. The journalist says Louisiana incarcerates more people than any state in the union, so there were no shortage of prisoners willing to participate in the documentary special.

“I think they understand that the system is troubled,” Holt, who’s interviewed everyone from rapper Meek Mill to the Central Park Five about prison reform over the course of his career, explains. “They’re making changes and they were very open to letting us tell that story. Prisoners, as well as staff, all treated me with courtesy and seemed very interested in our interests in their issues.”

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“We had virtual freedom,” he adds. “The Louisiana authorities gave us carte blanche, essentially. Very often I found myself where there were no corrections officers immediately near me.”

Holt says he didn’t know what to expect going into the project, but what he discovered was a sprawling facility — one that looked nothing like the rows and rows of cells set-up most people think of when they think of a maximum-security prison — and a newfound understanding of the term “life without the possibility of parole” after visiting the prison’s hospice ward.

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“You’re looking in the face of people who have spent, in some cases, virtually their entire adult life behind bars and they are about to die,” Holt says. “I found myself getting emotional at moments and kind of wrestling with the emotions sympathy and human compassion. But at the same time, recognizing that the vast majority of these people had taken a life or more than one life.”

Despite the current political divide, Holt says prison reform is one issue that many Americans seem to agree on, so “this is an opportune moment” to air a program like Life Inside. Holt is also set to moderate a criminal justice reform town hall meeting from New York’s maximum security prison, Sing Sing Correctional Facility, airing on MSNBC on Sept. 8.

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“We are in a period right now where people are very open to the conversation of criminal justice reform,” Holt explains. “The pendulum has swung from the ’90s … there was such a focus on locking all the bad people up. We advocate no position, but it’s important that people understand how much of society mass incarceration affects.”

Life Inside airs Friday at 10 p.m. ET on NBC.