Lester Holt spent two days inside Angola prison as part of NBC’s “Justice for All” series, which also includes a town hall from Sing Sing.

NBC News anchor was one of the first to interview rapper Meek Mill after his release. Now, he’s covering criminal justice from the inside.

Most of us will likely never spend time inside a prison cell. NBC News anchor Lester Holt embedded himself inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary known as Angola for two nights as part of Justice for All, a special report focusing on criminal justice. He traveled to fields where inmates pick crops, spent time with convicted killers and walked away with a sense that hope, even inside a maximum security prison, is hard to wipe out. USA TODAY’s Policing the USA and digital content editor Eileen Rivers spoke with Holt, 60, about his experiences and takeaways. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity:

Q. In your long career you’ve covered so many things. What made you want to cover criminal justice? 

A. In 1995 I became interested in criminal justice when I attended an execution as a media witness. It was obviously a profound experience, and it was the first time I remember starting to think and kind of wrestle with our criminal justice system: What is its purpose? Are we any safer because of what just happened? That perhaps planted the seed. 

Q.  What are some assumptions you had before you started covering criminal justice?

A. I don’t know that I had assumptions when I began covering this. I had patches of ignorance, is what I call them. Some things you just don’t think about. I sit at this news desk every day, and I do stories about criminals who were convicted. They were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, and it rolls off your tongue. But you don’t really think about what that means.

Q. What did you learn at Angola? 

A. When I went to Angola I was able to see what life in prison really means. It means an 83-year-old man who’s been there since he was a teenager. You know, now stooped over and his hands all gnarled. It means a guy who’s been in prison over 40 years who is dying in the prison hospice ward. And that’s all he will ever see until the day he dies. So, it was coming face to face with things that I think we just don’t think about.

Q.  Your stay in Angola was part of your Justice for All report. Tell us about the project.

A.  As I’ve covered criminal justice stories, I realized that there’s so much more to cover, so much more to talk about. One of my bosses had the idea: What if you were to report the story from inside prison, to actually spend time, to exist in a cell in prison. And so the folks at the Angola prison in Louisiana welcomed our idea. Louisiana has made a lot of criminal justice reforms, particularly in the area of reducing the incarcerated population. After some back and forth, we decided to move into this project and tell this story from the inside out. 

Q.  You said you wanted your stay there to be real, like reporters who embed with the military. How real was it?

A.  One of the things we say in the program is that I didn’t stay in a cell to play prisoner. I wasn’t a prisoner. I was out covering stories on the prison grounds. The people who were housed immediately around me spend 23 hours a day locked up. That wasn’t my experience. So the notion wasn’t to somehow play prisoner and be exactly like an inmate, but to step a little bit into their world to be able to better tell the story.

Q.  What surprised you while you were there? 

A. I was surprised at the relative freedom at the prison. Prison authorities really wanted us to get to see what we needed to see and talk to who we needed to talk to. Also just the comings and goings of the prisoners. The other thing I think that being in prison really helped me understand was how we are able to adapt as human beings. We met people who had been in there since they were teenagers. They’re going through programs and they talk about: Look, we’re not the same people we were when we committed that crime. At the same time, as a reporter, you’re always skeptical. Are they conning me? Are they telling me you know what I want to hear? And you never really are sure. But what I am sure about is I met people in that prison who are likely not a danger to society anymore.

Q.  I saw a photo of you in the field with inmates. Did you actually work with them? 

A. Angola is really a farm. It’s a very sprawling complex of various prison camps, but everyone has a job there. It’s hard labor. One of the jobs is working the fields. So I, on one day, joined a group that went on this big tractor, and we were taken out into the fields to pick carrots. And on either side of me were convicted murderers. They were both African-American and had very strong feelings about that particular job given the legacy of that land as a former slave plantation.

Q. Tell me about those conversations.

A. It’s one of the things we talked about and one of the things I recognized. I said: Look, we’re in a former slave plantation, and most of the people here look kind of like us. So that was part of the conversation. The prison authorities, of course, will point out that all that food is consumed at the prison, that any piece of farmland in Louisiana was likely at some point a slave plantation. But it was something that certainly I noted. The conversations are very real. At one point I asked an inmate who was working next to me, “Should I be worried about my safety?” And his answer was, “If you were an inmate here, yeah, you should.” I didn’t feel threatened at all but it was quite a sight. We’re working in the fields and there are guards on horseback with guns. It was really impactful.

Q.  So you never felt threatened?

A.  No. Before I arrived, our camera crew captured a shakedown after a knife was discovered, and there were some drugs found. Guards told us about things that had happened, things that have been thrown at them, excrement thrown at them, and it was at one point a very dangerous place. By all accounts it’s less dangerous now because they have instituted educational enrichment, religious programs, and they’ve had, they say, great success with that. 

Q.  You mentioned that Angola used to be a slave plantation. Let’s talk about men of color and incarceration. You were one of the first journalists to interview rapper Meek Mill after he was released on bail in a controversial probation case. His conviction was recently overturned. What do you think his treatment shows? 

A.  Well, Meek’s story really kind of opened my eyes to the issue of probation and how it can be this kind of vicious circle. He lived that experience as a celebrity. So he had a voice to talk about it. But the point he’s been making (is that) there are a lot of guys he left behind in prison who don’t have the means. They might get probation and then not be able to to pay the fees that they’re supposed to pay. Any number of things can get you back in that probation system. It’s not an issue that is restricted to African Americans, but it does disproportionately affect minorities. 

Q.  What are some misconceptions that you think most Americans have about the justice system?

A. There is an assumption that the criminal justice system is built to correct its mistakes. And what I’ve found very often is, it’s not. I did a story on a man who’s in prison. A judge has looked at this case and said he probably shouldn’t be there. The only thing keeping him there is essentially the technicality that he filed his paperwork too late. I think that we tend to expect our system to work quickly to right itself. What I’ve learned is it doesn’t move quickly. 

Q.  What do you hope viewers get from the Justice for All project?

A. I hope that by taking them through a journey (in Angola) that they will feel a little bit of what I felt, which is that sense of conflict. I feel a sense of compassion for people and how they’ve ended up here. But at the same time, I was confronted with the reality of how they did some horrible things.

Q.  Talk about the connection between Justice for All and R&B artist John Legend. 

A. John Legend has had incarceration in his family. He has a foundation right now dealing with this. He’s using his celebrity, as have others, to really get this issue out there. The important thing to remember about criminal justice reform right now is that we’re all talking about it. Politically, it’s a bipartisan issue. So we have a license now to really explore these things in a way that we didn’t.

Q.  Legend is participating in an upcoming town hall, right?

A.  We’re going to do this town hall on the grounds of Sing Sing Correctional Facility (in New York). Again, that’s kind of an extension of where we began at Angola, the idea, tell the story from the inside out. And so there will be people that are familiar to you, but there will also be some inmates in the crowd.

Q.  What do you want viewers and inmates to get out of Sunday’s town hall meeting?

A.  I want everyone to understand the various issues, issues like parole and probation. Putting people in prison who simply don’t belong in prison because they committed a minor violation, a technical violation. I want them to understand that some of the people they’ll meet are coming home some day, will be on the streets, be looking for a job, looking to participate in society. I want to further the conversation. I think it’s not something we typically talk about around the dinner table. But (criminal justice issues) are very, very important. And there’s a reckoning under way right now. You’re seeing it in bipartisan legislation like the First Step Act. And I think it’s about becoming aware that “yes, this is going to impact me in some form or fashion.”

Lester Holt’s special “Dateline NBC” report from inside Angola prison airs Friday at 10 p.m. ET. The town hall from Sing Sing airs Sunday at 10 p.m. on MSNBC. 

Check out USA TODAY Opinion’s criminal justice series Lifers at 

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