MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now, we want to spend a few minutes talking about a new television show that examines the criminal justice system from a critical but often overlooked angle. "Released" follows six former inmates after they have completed their time in prison. It takes place during their first three months in the outside world after years and, in some cases, decades behind bars. Shaka Senghor is an author and a consulting producer on the project, which is one of the latest offerings of Oprah Winfrey's OWN network. He's with us now from New York. Shaka Senghor, thanks so much for speaking with us.
SHAKA SENGHOR: Happy to be here.
MARTIN: So the title consulting producer - I take it that means you know where of you speak.
SENGHOR: Yes. Coming to this project was really an amazing experience first of all, but to be able to use my own personal experience to help, you know, shape the way that we told these stories was just something that means a lot to me and meant a lot to Oprah to have me as part of it.
MARTIN: What was your experience for people who aren't familiar with your story or who didn't happen to see you on the "Oprah" show? What was your experience that led you to this place?
SENGHOR: Yeah, I was incarcerated at the age of 19 in 1991. I spent a total of 19 years in prison, seven in a solitary confinement. And it was in that environment that I began writing and channeling, you know, stories that I felt reflected some experiences in the environment. And once I got out of prison, I wrote about a book - my memoir "Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, And Redemption In An American Prison." And that was the book that Oprah read that, you know, led her and I having the interview on her "SuperSoul Sunday."
MARTIN: The show is - and I don't mean this in a diminishing way, so please don't take it the wrong way - but it is kind of like a reality show. I mean, it follows them through things that a lot of people might take for granted. I know one moment stood out for me when one of the first people you meet doesn't recognize the phone, that his cousins are there to greet him and he doesn't recognize the phone. And he looks at it and he goes what do you want me to do with this? And she says, look, it's a phone. It's a phone. Put it to your ear, and he literally doesn't know. Let me just play a clip from one of the men profiled on the first episode - Kevin.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RELEASED")
KEVIN: I'm stepping into a restaurant for the first time in 19 years. It was strange. People were going about their daily business, and it reminded me that life was still going on in society. When you're incarcerated, you kind of expect the whole world to stop because you're in prison.
MARTIN: You know, I have to ask that when you saw people struggling with things that you must have struggled with yourself, did you want to help them? Did you help them?
SENGHOR: No, I didn't. Actually we didn't have any interference. You know, and this is - this is the difference between a docuseries and a reality TV show. Nothing is scripted about this. And of course there are moments where I was like I wish I could just say it'll be OK or, you know, just offer up some words of wisdom from my own experience. But for me, seeing them struggle with some of the same things I struggle with validated my feelings about what it was like walking out of prison and how scary it was. I mean, you think about that moment when Kevin picks up the phone - he's been gone for 20 years, and phone technology is dramatically different from what it was when he was incarcerated. And it's just all these little nuance things that I think will help families who have loved ones coming home really understand how important it is to just be patient. It may seem like something that doesn't seem that big in a person's life who's never been incarcerated, but for somebody who's been gone away, it's a very stressful moment.
MARTIN: And it wasn't just the people being released. It's also their families. They play a very critical role in the series and also in these people's lives. There's one woman profiled - Kay - who returns to her son, Simeon, who was born with Down's syndrome. We'll just play that clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RELEASED")
KAY: I never got a chance to tell him look, Mommy, might be gone for a while.
I love you so much.
And to hug Simeon for the first time, it felt good. It felt like I was being mommy.
I love y'all.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I think being with Sim is going to ground her and help her stay focused and do what she needs to do to be everything she want to be. But what are we celebrating? I mean, Kay went in five times before this one. I hope she don't go back, but you never know.
MARTIN: I think one of the things that you hear in that clip is the anger. You know, a lot of these - it's not all, like, hugs and kisses. I mean, there are lots of hugs and kisses and tears, but a lot of these families are really angry.
SENGHOR: Yeah and, I mean, it's the reality in this country. I mean, 10,000 people are released every week from prison, and that means that there's 10,000 families per week dealing with these realities of helping a loved one adjust to life on the outside and reconfiguring their lives, you know, to include them. And a lot of times there is resentment. There is some uncertainty as to what to expect based on these experiences.
MARTIN: Do you have, though - and I'm just going to ask it bluntly - an agenda with this series? Do you have some intention that you are hoping to fulfill here? Because I'm - I can imagine some people being not terribly sympathetic and saying if you don't want to experience this, then stay out of trouble. I mean, what would you - what would you say to that?
SENGHOR: Our intention is to humanize the men and women who are incarcerated and the people who are impacted by their incarceration. And oftentimes we just get into the statistics and data and we don't realize that there are real human beings behind the numbers. And so we were very intentional about humanizing people and showing that this happens every day. Every week in our communities, 10,000 people - I mean, when you really think about that number that's coming out of prison every week, you know, these people have real needs, they have real lives, their families, you know, have real needs. And we just really want to humanize the issue because we believe that that will generate a different type of conversation around criminal justice reform and around, you know, the difference between punishment and rehabilitation and the things that makes community and society better as a whole.
MARTIN: That's Shaka Senghor. He is an author and a consulting producer on the television show "Released." It premieres this weekend on the OWN Network. Shaka Senghor, thanks so much for speaking with us.
SENGHOR: Thank y'all so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.