Donald Washington Jr. had only an eighth-grade education when he began his 15-year-to-life sentence in a New York correctional facility for murder, robbery and the criminal sale of a controlled substance. By the time he was released nearly 15 years later, he had earned a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science and a master’s degree in professional studies through a prison college program.
He knows self-improvement is possible for those in prison. But he also knows that obstacles exist.
“Prison is not an environment that’s necessarily conducive to your growth and development,” Washington, 38, said. “But it can be if you seek that, right? So this is the seeds of hope that we are hoping to plant.”
He is referring to “Inside Story,” a news and current-affairs video series Washington created with Lawrence Bartley in partnership with Vice Media and the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization focused on the U.S. criminal justice system. Made largely by former prisoners, the show explores issues of crime, punishment and the prison industry for a target audience of the imprisoned and anyone else who might value such a perspective. Reports on topics like the living conditions and drug use inside correctional facilities accompany personal essays and interviews with criminal justice experts and the previously incarcerated.
The series, which includes eight episodes in its first season, premieres on Thursday and will air weekly inside correctional facilities in 48 states, as well as on the Vice News YouTube channel, the Marshall Project website and the Vice FAST channel on Tubi, a streaming platform.
Bartley, 49, who spent roughly 27 years in prison for crimes including murder, met Washington while serving time at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, N.Y. Bartley and others involved with the show foreground their own experiences and past sentences, both as a means to foster trust in their audiences behind bars — prisoners inherently have their guard up, Bartley said — and to present themselves as evidence that a meaningful life after prison is possible.
“It allows people on the inside to dream,” Bartley said.
“Inside Story” builds upon News Inside, a print publication that Bartley, who was released from prison in 2018, developed with the Marshall Project in 2019. The publication is distributed to more than 1,000 correctional facilities, but with an estimated 60 percent of people in U.S. prisons having low-literacy skills, Bartley decided that it would be “great if we put our work into video format,” he said.
Bartley and Washington began brainstorming the concept for “Inside Story” in 2020 in Bartley’s living room; Washington had previously dabbled in filming and video editing. In 2021, the Marshall Project produced a pilot program with early versions of the first three episodes, which were posted on the group’s website and distributed to hundreds of prisons. Hoping to expand the program, the creative team sought guidance the following spring from James Goldston, a former ABC News president, who helped the team elevate the storytelling and production quality. (Goldston received media attention last year for producing the Jan. 6 hearings.)
“Journalism about criminal justice isn’t actually reaching the people it needs to reach often; it’s reaching a different audience,” Goldston said in a video interview. “It just seemed to me that it was a very powerful idea.”
In 2022, the Marshall Project partnered with Vice News to craft the first eight-episode season, building on the three pilot episodes. Subrata De, the executive vice president who oversees Vice News, said that the organization had been drawn to Bartley and Washington’s “for us, by us” model.
“As much as we try to tell the stories of incarceration from a policy perspective or from conditions, it’s still on some level about a subject, and it is still about us going in and telling somebody else’s story,” De said. “It’s just so different when the people who were directly involved or affected by policy get to take that leadership position in the storytelling.”
“Inside Story” approaches the incarcerated population as members of the audience, Washington said, and aims to demonstrate that their lives matter. But getting the series shown inside prisons posed challenges. In most cases, content for correctional facilities must be approved by a state department of corrections commissioner, a warden or a media review team, said Martin Garcia, the manager of News Inside, who helped with distribution of the video series.
There have been snags: For example, in New York, where a team within the department of corrections approves content for its 44 state prisons, the authorities rejected an early version of an episode involving a prisoner who had contracted Covid-19 multiple times while behind bars, Washington said.
“We want it to be honest and true,” Washington said. “That means we have to take a risk,” he added, that some material might meet with official resistance.
Based on the reach of the pilot program and News Inside, the Marshall Project expects to run “Inside Story” in more than 1,000 correctional facilities across the country via tablets, DVDs and digital downloads, Washington said.
“Inside Story” offers its own takes on hot-button criminal justice topics like the practices of using solitary confinement for juvenile inmates and of putting children in adult prisons. (A report in the first episode investigates a plan by Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana to house teenage offenders temporarily in the state’s historically brutal penitentiary in Angola.)
Other subjects include policing, side hustles, hourly wages and lethal injections. The series also features interviews with activists like Bryan Stevenson, the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit legal defense provider, and pop culture figures like the comedian Luenell and the TV personality La La Anthony. A recurring segment called “Life Inside,” inspired by the Marshall Project’s weekly series of first-person stories of the same name, presents animated essays from a variety of people with firsthand experience with the corrections system.
Another regular feature, “Inside the Spotlight,” highlights the careers and opportunities some people have pursued after being released from prison.
“We’re violent felony offenders — we are what America deems as irredeemable,” said Garcia, 37, who served eight years out of a 10-year sentence for assault. “People say that we should never have got out of prison, we should never have a second chance at life.”
Garcia added that former prisoners like him, Bartley and Washington exemplify what can happen “when you give somebody the opportunity to change.”
Frans Sital, 48, an inmate at Elmira Correctional Facility in Elmira, N.Y., has been in prison since age 17 for convictions including burglary and murder. With more than 30 years inside, Sital said he is considered “an old timer” in the penitentiary, and in recent years, he has begun facilitating programs on communication, forgiveness, prison culture and related topics.
An avid reader of News Inside, Sital said the paper humanizes the perspective of offenders like him. He expects the same from “Inside Story,” he said.
“Nobody can speak better about us than us because we lived this experience,” Sital said in a phone interview from the prison.
Listening to Bartley and others who have walked the jail yard and are now thriving outside it, he said, has helped him to believe in second chances.
“They physically have me incarcerated, but they can’t get anything else from me,” Sital said. “They’re not getting my love, they’re not getting my joy, my smile, my happiness, my sense of humor, the little bit of sanity I do have — they can’t get that.”