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Bringing news inside prisons with Lawrence Bartley

Chris Hayes speaks with News Inside director Lawrence Bartley about distributing his Pulitizer Prize-winning magazine to prisons and jails across the U.S.

Lawrence Bartley was just 17 years old when he was charged and sentenced to 27 years-to-life following a movie theater shoot-out. Gunfire erupted after the group that he was with exchanged insults with another crew of moviegoers. According to the prosecutor, Lawrence’s bullet was the one that hit and killed an innocent 15-year-old boy. Filled with remorse and guilt, Lawrence used his time in prison to reckon with his past, while also finding his place in a rapidly changing society. His incarceration experience ultimately led him to create “News Inside,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning Marshall Project criminal-justice-focused magazine that’s distributed in prisons around the U.S. He joins to discuss how his experience led him to create the publication, changes to the prison system and life as a (now free) suburban dad.

Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.

Lawrence Bartley: (IN PROGRESS) --because of my experience which is a horrible experience. But partly in having conversations with prison administrators and knowin' how they think and knowing, you know, the reasons that they would flag something and what makes them tick and what doesn't, and bein' able to have those straightforward conversations without them havin' to explain to me the basics of how a prison institution work, that helps me get right to the heart of it and not waste time. And I found that they're more apt to allow my publication in than not.

Chris Hayes: Hello, and welcome to Why Is This Happening with me, your host, Chris Hayes. Of the many intense disruptions of the last year-and-a-half or more on the COVID period, one of the places in America where disruption has been the most acute and the most miserable and the most dangerous are in America's jails and prisons.

Obviously, in those places, social distancing is essentially impossible. They have always been places where infectious diseases can spread fairly easily. They also tend to be places with not the best health care for those who are incarcerated.

And almost immediately upon, you know, the arrival of COVID, people that work amongst incarcerated populations were ringing the alarm bells about what it would mean. And there were some steps that were taken in some places. You may have seen that certain very high-profile, federal prisoners (Michael Cohen, for instance), folks were allowed to essentially transfer out into a kind of, you know, home confinement rather than being incarcerated.

There was limits put on the numbers of folks that were in places like Rikers, for instance. There were actually fewer folks incarcerated in there. They were spread out. And yet, in the main, not that much was done. And in fact, COVID did ravage America's jails and prisons.

Many people got sick. Many people died. That continues to this day. But also, a criminal justice system that had been weirdly frozen for a long period of time, court wasn't possible, it was being done through Zoom, because trials weren't really happening, it kind of froze everything in place.

So, a lotta things weren't moving forward. There was this kind of, like, extended period in which the normal machinery of the criminal justice system which grinds on in assembly-line fashion had been kind of paused. That is now whirring back to life.

And it's feeding people into jails and prisons once again, jails and prisons that are under even more intense strain than they were, pre-COVID. There are now more people in them. There are more people being put into them. And there are staffing shortages throughout them as you've seen in other places.

There's been a lot of reporting here about the human rights disaster that is Rikers Island in New York City where you have inmates crammed into cells for 48 hours; 25 people in a room; where you have plumbing that's not working; you have unsanitary and unsafe conditions even more than usual.

We should say that, like, Rikers Island and most municipal jails are not particularly pleasant places to be normally. But all of this has been exacerbated by both the pandemic and then the aftermath of the pandemic; the pressures bearing down on it.

And there has been reporting on this. But of course, you know, jails and prisons exist outside. You know, they are segregated from society. You have to go through metal detectors and buzzers and walls to get into them. They are not places that are open to the public, broadly.

They are a kind of hidden adjunct to American society even though there's, you know, more than a million people who reside in them every day. And there's hundreds of thousands who work in them. And so, I wanted to talk today about what the conditions of the last year-and-a-half and now have been inside this part of America where many of our fellow citizens live that is often hidden, difficult to access.

And I thought the best person to talk about that is someone who runs a publication that is by and for incarcerated folks. It's a publication called News Inside. It's a publication that's being read in prisons and jails across the U.S. He's also the host of Inside Story, a video series designed for people in prisons and jails across the country.

He is at The Marshall Project which is sort of the publisher of both of those and his name is Lawrence Bartley. I got to meet Lawrence recently at a fundraising event for the Osborne Association, which is an incredible organization that works with both incarcerated, formerly incarcerated, their families and loved ones throughout the New York area. And Lawrence was at my table and I got to meet him and I thought, oh my God, I gotta get this guy in the podcast. So, Lawrence Bartley, great to have you on.

Lawrence Bartley: Hey, thank you for havin' me, Chris. Thank you much.

Chris Hayes: So, maybe let's talk about the publication briefly, then talk about your own experience. And then we can talk about, you know, what has happened over the last year-and-a-half; what your reporters have been tellin' you and your readers have been tellin' you. But tell me what is the News Inside? How does it work to run a publication that is distributed in jails and prisons?

Lawrence Bartley: Well, it's hard work but it's also cool work. Just for those who don't know, News Inside, as you mentioned, is a print publication. It's distributed in prisons and jails in 41 states across the U.S. People who are incarcerated, they don't have access to the internet. So, they don't know about The Marshall Project, nonprofit news organization that reports on criminal justice news. And they are the people who will probably benefit from the news we produce the most 'cause they're incarcerated.

Chris Hayes: Exactly.

Lawrence Bartley: Right. So, I figured out a way in order to create this publication, to put it in print, and distribute it across the U.S. which we'll probably get into the details of how that's possible maybe a little later. And inside the publication, we're able to place stories that are relative to people who are incarcerated as opposed to them, you know, tryin' to get a pricey news subscription.

And they only make about $.10 an hour; they can't afford it. They might come from impoverished community or working-class community where their parents and loved ones can't afford to give them a pricey subscription like the ones that are goin' on today.

So, News Inside is free of charge. It's free of hassle. And like I said, it's relevant. Example of how it's relevant? Durin' the time of COVID, we recently published a story called Your Zoom Interrogation is About to Begin. And essentially, it's about since the time of COVID and in order to enact social distancing, people weren't bein' interrogated by police anymore. Instead, these interrogations were happenin' over Zoom. And because of that, there was less complaints of coercion, assault, of bein' beat up into making confessions. And we wrote a whole story about that.

Chris Hayes: Wow. Wait. It's funny. When you introduced Your Zoom Interrogation About to Begin, I thought the place you were gonna go with that is this kind of dystopian, sci-fi vision of, like, oh, it's even worse. What you're saying is it was a net benefit to have Zoom interrogation--

Lawrence Bartley: That is a fact. It was definitely a net benefit. And even in the piece, we went into the history of interrogations that went wrong and Supreme Court decisions on what techniques detectives and police officers can no longer use. And we published it in the piece.

And I got a letter from someone who's incarcerated who said, "Wow, this piece was very valuable to me because I'm incarcerated and I have just that issue that I'm litigating inside of a court now. I can't pay for a lawyer. So, I have to litigate on my own. So, I'm usin' sections of that article in order to bolster my argument on how I was unfairly interrogated."

Chris Hayes: So, how often is it produced and who writes the articles?

Lawrence Bartley: It's produced three times a year. 80% of the articles are written by our staff writers. They are investigative journalists who produce this award-winnin' work. Just recently in July, we won a Pulitzer Prize for our mall (?) series about police dog bites.

But 20% of the articles are written by people who are impacted by the system, which are people who are incarcerated but also judges and district attorneys and correction officers and parents of people incarcerated or even formerly incarcerated people. Sometimes they write life inside as well and they find their way in each issue of News Inside.

Chris Hayes: And you mentioned this and so (UNINTEL) later. But I'd like to know now, I mean, how do you get this? The distribution methods must be complex. Obviously, there are many jails and prisons across the U.S.--

Lawrence Bartley: Right.

Chris Hayes: It's not like you're the New York Times, which has built up over 150 years a national distribution center. And they've got, you know, papers rolling off the presses in different regions of the country and all that stuff. So, how do you actually get the product to people inside jails and prisons?

Lawrence Bartley: Good question. Well, the prison walls are not only meant to keep people in but it's meant to keep information out. Why? Because prison administrators fear contraband comin' into their facilities. And sometime, contraband can be described as a thought; a thought that might incite a riot or cause some type of unrest in prisons.

So, there are these censorship rules that it could be a 50-page publication. One sentence could be objectionable to a prison administrator on page one. That would cause the whole publication to get banned. And in some places, if a publication is banned more than once, then the actual publisher becomes banned.

And then a lotta things get scooped up under that and, therefore, information don't get on the inside. But the reason why I was able to be successful in distribution is because, unfortunately, I was incarcerated, myself. And when I was incarcerated, I was part of a committee called the IOC, which is sorta like an incarcerated person's union.

And it was our job to be a go-between between the incarcerated population and the prison administrators whenever issues arise. And part of that, just to give you example of what we used to do, it could be, like, if it was durin' the time of COVID, it was a distribution of vaccines; it would be our job to kinda speak to the incarcerated population to tell them this vaccine is coming out. This is how the process is gonna happen.

Or it might be which flavor of ice cream to put in the commons area. (LAUGH) We try to make decision about that. It could be those two, extreme. But in that capacity, I had to be familiar with the directives and policy procedures that govern the facilities.

And in there is the censorship and screening directive. And I learned, you know, ways. All right, this is what they look for. And I was bettin' that they get mirrored, state to state, the same policies are mirrored in some way, shape, form or fashion throughout the whole country. And I used that to News Inside's advantage. So, we were able to skirt most hurdles that other publications face.

Chris Hayes: There's a few things here I think that are worth noting. I mean, one is there's no First Amendment inside prison. I mean, the administrator can decide--

Lawrence Bartley: Yes.

Chris Hayes: --totally what comes in and out, right. I mean, they have essentially carte blanche. Basically, you have to get, like, an active, affirmative, like, thumbs up from each institution.

Lawrence Bartley: Well, in some places, yes. In other places, no. You can get thumbs up from the commissioner who runs an entire state department of correction. And a thumbs up will go throughout.

Chris Hayes: Ah, gotcha.

Lawrence Bartley: But then some facilities have carte blanche to say what they want in and what they want out. And that can be a ripple effect. If one facility out of 67 says we don't like this publication, a red flag goes up and the central office hears of this red flag.

And then they start rescreening in every facility to figure out why this shouldn't come in and is it the best thing for our whole institution. And that can be problematic. But there's many more issues that can occur. There's many more avenues of entry. But we'll probably be here for a long time if I explain all of (LAUGH) those.

Chris Hayes: I mean, point is that you have, and this is something I think we're gonna come back around to, your knowledge of how the system works and what the lines are and what prison administrators are thinking of to create relationships and also a publication that is squarely on one side of the line, and to get in and be read by and partly produced by folks that are incarcerated.

Lawrence Bartley: Absolutely. Absolutely. And another helpful thing to add is, like, you mentioned relationships. And because of my experience which is a horrible experience, but partly in having conversation with prison administrators and knowin' how they think and knowing, you know, the reasons that they would flag something and what makes them tick and what doesn't, and bein' able to have those straightforward conversations without them havin' to explain to me the basics of how a prison institution work, that helps me get right to the heart of it and not waste time. And I found that they're more apt to allow my publication in than not.

Chris Hayes: You mentioned being incarcerated, yourself, which is--

Lawrence Bartley: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

Chris Hayes: --where a lot of this experience come from. Tell me about the conditions of your incarceration. What were you incarcerated for and when?

Lawrence Bartley: Unfortunately, when I was 17 years old, I was in a situation where I was attacked and I respond back. Stupid. Well, back when I was 16, I was shot in a drive-by shooting. And I didn't have trust in the law enforcement at that time. So, I just figured I'd protect myself in the future and I had a gun. And then when I was attacked again, I used the gun to defend myself. And the result? Someone was killed in the process. So, I was sentenced to 27 years in a New York prison and I did every bit of that 27 years.

Chris Hayes: It's funny. I'm getting to look at you on this video which is shocking to hear that you did every bit (?) of the (LAUGH) 27 years because you don't look that old. But also, you're young. I mean--

Lawrence Bartley: Thank you.

Chris Hayes: --tell me a little more of the conditions. You grew up in Queens, is that right?

Lawrence Bartley: Yes, I'm from Queens, New York. You know, my parents are from Queens, New York. They're from Guyana and they came over here in the '70s and, you know, raised their children, you know, to try to chase the American dream. And my parents still live in New York.

But I, myself, am a journalist now and I live in Connecticut. But I spent most of my life inside of a New York state prison. And I learned how to shave in that New York state prison. I learned essentially how to be an adult. And I was very lucky to keep my wits about myself so I'm not changed adversely mentally or physically, for that matter.

Chris Hayes: What was going through your head, spiritually, psychologically, emotionally in the aftermath of A) being attacked, and then someone dying, you know, as a result of your actions, and then being in prison?

Lawrence Bartley: Well, it was traumatic because one thing that went through my mind is my parents didn't raise me like that. My grandmother didn't raise me like that. So, being, you know, in that situation is really tough. I couldn't see the macro at that time.

I was 17 years old. I could only see what was right in front of me. And I couldn't fathom doin' 27 years. And I couldn't even spend time thinking about how daunting the whole thing was because I had to worry about how I was gonna survive the next hour inside a prison system.

It was a learning curve and a survival curve for me at the same time. Underneath, I was saddled with deep remorse for what had happened. And I don't wanna be described as someone that took someone life. And imagine how, you know, a person's family was torn up about it.

And I always wondered, you know, what actually happened. Because it was never proven, like, who shot who. I mean, forensics weren't as advanced back then. But due to the actin' inconstant (?) law, long as you fired a weapon, they don't care if the person who's shootin' at you killed an individual, you are responsible for that.

So, just bein' part of a whole situation that wasn't good for anybody on any side, particularly for the deceased, you know, that saddled me with guilt for a long, long, long time. And it's somethin' I would never, you know, get over. But you know, now that, you know, the incarceration is behind me, I don't forget but I still try to do the work and try to put some good in the world, either way.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. I read, you know, some profiles and things. I mean, the conditions that you're describing are so common in interpersonal violence. That happens across the country. I mean, that someone is in the midst of, is on the receiving end of violence and then is tryin' to protect themselves or tryin' to, a lot of times, it's someone whose loved one has been shot at or hurt or killed and wants to get retribution--

Lawrence Bartley: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

Chris Hayes: --those conditions are the main drivers--

Lawrence Bartley: Right.

Chris Hayes: --that we see in the kinds of violence, and particularly things that we saw in the last year when interpersonal violence went up quite a bit.

Lawrence Bartley: Right, absolutely. Absolutely. You said it the best.

Chris Hayes: So, you get in there. You're a very young man. You said you had to learn to shave.

Lawrence Bartley: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

Chris Hayes: How do you begin to figure out how to navigate this environment?

Lawrence Bartley: Well, for me, I just watched those around me. I learned lessons from those who didn't make it; the don'ts (?). Some people who did things like try to befriend everyone, try to be a part of everything and follow people, who they have no understanding of the things that that person does outside of your presence and how that can blow back on you, once I learned that and I kinda knew what not to (LAUGH) do.

Chris Hayes: Say more about that. 'Cause I feel like there would be a temptation to wanna befriend everyone. If you're alone in a new place and you're scared and lonely, I would imagine that you'd think, like, well, if I'm friends with everyone, that will protect me. But you're saying that's actually the opposite?

Lawrence Bartley: Yes. That can be bad if you befriend the wrong person, you know. Certainly, there's people that you wanna befriend. But it's hard to know who when you're new. And inside a prison system, I could be in a prison for eight months and they could just ship me eight hours away (LAUGH) just like that.

And I could be there for two weeks and then ship another five hours away and be there for three years. So, it's hard. You have to learn every situation, not only every prison but every housin' block and who's in there, and learn the reputations of each individual in order to choose your friends wisely and who you associate yourself with, so.

And one person gets involved in something and if there's retaliation, they're gonna retaliate on everyone who associates with that person. So, that can happen. But I don't wanna paint the picture that it's all everyone is just monsters in there because that's not true.

There's some people who I've learned a lot from. There's some people who I would have babysit my young children but they're in there for a horrendous crime. But they did a 180 from their ways. And there's some good, honest people that shed tears and have hopes and dreams (just like any one of us) behind those walls.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. I mean, my experience in talkin' to people who've been incarcerated is that it's a society. (LAUGH) You know, there's all the things that go into a society, you know. There's beasts and then there's love and there's, you know, gossip and (UNINTEL).

Lawrence Bartley: Absolutely.

Chris Hayes: You know, all the things that humans in close proximity do with each other, you know, laughter and anger and all that stuff, is all there.

Lawrence Bartley: Absolutely.

Chris Hayes: And it's ordered, though, by the forms of the institution which, of course, restrict your freedom tremendously.

Lawrence Bartley: Absolutely. Yes, indeed.

Chris Hayes: So, you're going there at 17. I mean, obviously, you're not running a publication, okay. So, what is your education? How do you pursue education? What is your education like as a very young man who hasn't, I imagine, even graduated from high school by the time you go in? How does that happen under conditions of incarceration?

Lawrence Bartley: Well, it starts with the way a person use his or her self. I always thought of myself as someone who has the capacity to learn a lot. And I enjoyed learnin' a lot. But I also enjoy doing something with what I learned or-- or bein' creative.

So, even when I was first incarcerated, when I wasn't in school, I was readin' novels. I was tryin' to understand things. If the administration was tellin' me, oh, this was a rule, you can't do this or can't do that, and I thought it was wrong, I was researching. I was findin' out where to research. And I will learn things that way.

But I didn't have a high school education. I was in high school when I was arrested. So, when I went in, I was able to obtain a GED. And my last bit of education on the inside ended up with me havin' a master's degree. So, even in doing that, I found myself as a part of a group of individuals who were in the post-secondary education who didn't just do it just to do it so it could look good at the parole board and say, listen, I have a degree; let me out; I'm a good person.

You know, I did it because I really cared about it. And every test I took seriously. Every paper I took seriously. When I got a A-minus, I felt crazy. I felt like I was just so stressed (LAUGH) out, like my life is over. My professors would tell me to relax. It's not that serious--

Chris Hayes: I relate. Lawrence, I relate to that. (LAUGH) I relate to that.

Lawrence Bartley: I'm glad you do. I'm glad you do. 'Cause, you know, I just wanna do the best just for myself, to prove it to myself that I could do the best and I can grow more. And that's the way I take towards journalism on the outside as well.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. This is a sort of obvious question but I'm still gonna ask it. Like, I think a lotta people when they think about incarceration, they think about boredom. They think about how the time passes. And also I think particularly now, as I imagine you can attest to being on, you know, living as just a suburban dad, basically, like, you've got the internet, you got phone, you got constant distraction, (LAUGH) right. So--

Lawrence Bartley: Right.

Chris Hayes: --in the conditions of incarceration, like, you're with your thoughts a lot and that could be hard.

Lawrence Bartley: Right.

Chris Hayes: How did you deal with that? And how much was the reading and the education and the focusing on, like, I think for myself, if I was in those conditions, focusing on writing a paper would be very helpful for me because it would kind of structure my thoughts in a way that I think would be useful--

Lawrence Bartley: Right.

Chris Hayes: --rather than them, like, rattling around my head.

Lawrence Bartley: Exactly. Well, yeah, that was definitely useful and it helped me out a lot. But I also thought that if I'm doin' this paper then, you know, I'm sendin' it to my professor; I'm gettin' my grade. I'm feelin' good about it. I'm workin' my way towards a degree.

That was well and good. But what good am I putting into the world? You know, and when I don't have a paper going on, when I'm not studyin' for a test, what else am I doing outside, even though I like to do things simultaneously, 'cause that's how I work? So, what am I doin' on the outside of school?

So, early on in my incarceration, I started becomin' a fan of basketball. So, I like basketball. I remember I was in this one prison. They had a lotta guys that played basketball but the prisons were separated in half. It was Clinton Correction Facility.

Half the side goes to recreation. Half the prison goes to recreation together while the other half goes to recreation together. They never get to see each other. Only way they can see each other is with sports. We play a game together and the administration didn't allow that to happen anymore because there was no one to run it.

It was always someone runnin' with some violence or somethin', so they didn't trust it. So, I wrote a proposal to prison administration. I said, yo, listen, let me be the commissioner of the league. I'll organize the (LAUGH) game (UNINTEL) you don't have to do anything but give me supplies.

And then I'll prove that this league is successful and I could do cross-overs. They said, yes. They allowed me to do it. Now, previous commissioners, they used to do that. They used to get jerseys. They used to run the game. But with me, I used to have statisticians to take down rebounds, assists, blocked (LAUGH) shots, turnover.

And half of the season, I used to prepare a list with a player profile of (LAUGH) who has the A-plus ball-handlin' skills, graded from A-plus to C; shooting ability. I used to grade it. And I used to have player profiles and I used to use that in order for each coach with the winning record to choose an all-star team and have a big all-star team.

And I used to save my own money in order to put together a whole bunch of treats. And I was to give it to the winning team if they win. And that's how I used to occupy my time, early on. And as the years progressed, I came up with different creative ways to engage the population. But it's 27 years of that. It'd be a long story. I'll be tellin' you so many of those.

Chris Hayes: Well, no. That's fascinating. You know, one thing this brings to mind, which we've mentioned a little bit, is that, you know, when I heard you speak, when I met you, and also when I've interviewed people that were either incarcerated or formerly incarcerated, it always strikes me that the staff and guards are a part of the society. I mean, obviously, they're on a different side of freedom.

Lawrence Bartley: Right.

Chris Hayes: But you're also all in there together at some level. Like, there's a lot of interaction. Tell me a little bit about what those relationships are like when you talk about goin' to the administration or, you know, that kind of conversation. Like, how do you think about those folks that are working inside the prison and not incarcerated?

Lawrence Bartley: I go from the correction officer level. And I won't say the facility I'm in because they could get in trouble for this. All right? There's this one guard who was in a block that I was in. He's a blowhard. He used to always yell and scream. On the microphone, people, wake up, like, 5:00 in the mornin'.

Get up. Such-and-such cell, wake up. And it would just blare over the speaker. It was, like, very mean-spirited sometimes, some things that he would do. But then he also had a soft side. Sometimes he would see things and he would make sure if a person got burned for goin' one place, and he thought it was unfair, he would go out of his way to make sure a person get there.

So, I understood him for who he was and he began to understood people for who we are. We take the good with the bad. So, I orchestrated this. American Ninja Warrior, the show came out. And I was fascinated by it. So, without gettin' approval, this was totally against the rules, I orchestrated my own American Ninja Warrior.

And people could get hurt and go to the hospital and lawsuits. So, I could've got in a lotta trouble for organizin' this. So, I actually built contraptions. I paid people to smuggle wooden pieces and we built contraptions for people to, like, throw the ball through nets or football throw for accuracy.

And you accrue points and you have to do it durin' a certain amount of time. And you win, once again, my bag of treats. And I would do that and I used to also put on a talent show. I used to do it for Fourth of July every year. And you know, the officers knew about this.

And this one particular officer, one day, he joined. He entered. And he entered. He contributed by doin' a poem in the talent show. And then, at the end, whoever won most of the events, I created a belt. You know, I mean, a championship belt with a weight belt.

I had people design on it; you're the champion for that entire year. So, even though, you know, some things may not have been approved and it may be, you know, something that the administration won't go for, there's officers who saw the good in certain things, they lived around us and they participated in certain events.

Chris Hayes: So, how many different facilities were you in over the course of those 27 years--

Lawrence Bartley: I wanna say either ten or 11.

Chris Hayes: Wow. Do you feel like you were starting from scratch every time you got transferred? Or do you feel like you were bringing a lot of experience in that made it easier each time?

Lawrence Bartley: Both. I was startin' from scratch in a lotta places because you have to get used to the different norms of the different facilities. But bein' around so long, and bein' respected by incarcerated people, and they would move around, when I would come to a new facility, word would travel that I was there.

And I used to always get, like, bags of treats and goods because before, when you arrived to a facility, your property don't arrive with you until maybe five days later. So, you don't have a towel. You don't have a wash rag. You don't have soap. You don't have food.

And the food that they serve in the mess hall is horrible. So, when I arrived, lotta incarcerated people used to chip in and make sure I had things to eat. Maybe I'd have a fresh towel and, you know, soap and stuff like that. It felt good doin' those things.

And-- then after from bein' incarcerated so long, you know, guards who end up goin' to be (UNINTEL) security or superintendents or then workin' in Albany in a central office to run all the facilities, and sometimes I'd gain relationships with those folks as well.

So, when they used to come in from their top seats in the central office into the facility, and the administrative team of the facility, includin' superintendent (in some states, they call them warden), they'd be fearful 'cause their bosses were in.

Oh, our boss is in. We have to do everything to the letter. Hey, sir. Walkin' around and their boss would see me. Like, hey, Lawrence, what's goin' on? Pull me to the side. We'd (LAUGH) have this conversation and they'd be like, what the hell. Now, I know I knew him when he was a sergeant. You know, it's a bad thing that I've been there so long but it's a good thing I was able to develop those relationships on both sides of the I guess different colors of uniforms.

Chris Hayes: We'll be back after this quick break. What year did you get out?

Lawrence Bartley: 2018, May. May, 2018.

Chris Hayes: I mean, I guess it's impossible to describe what that felt like. I'd love to hear you (LAUGH) try--

Lawrence Bartley: Well, it felt like bein' born again and breathing free air for the first time, which is different. And when I was in, I had never seen the internet before. So, comin' out to this new world where the internet is a thing and a phone is--

Chris Hayes: Oh my God, it's like Rip Van Winkle. (LAUGH) I mean, seriously, it--

Lawrence Bartley: Yes.

Chris Hayes: --must be bewildering.

Lawrence Bartley: Absolutely. You said it. But you know, from a lot of my peers, it's, like, daunting. It's a struggle to get to learn all this processes. But for me, when I was in, I was in a college program called Hudson Link. And I had this intro to computers professor who had worked at IBM for 27 years and had over 40 patents.

He volunteered his time to put on this class; Professor Neal. He said, "You might see a different computer system and it might be updated, but long as you learn the concepts of why a thing does what it does, what it needs to do, you could figure out what that icons are and navigate through it." And I use that mindset to figure out how to use my phone, how to use the computer, how to use everything. And I threw myself into it and now, three years in, my family members are askin' me how to do things.

Chris Hayes: And you have children, is that right?

Lawrence Bartley: Yes. I have three children. One isn't a child anymore. She's an adult. But I also have two young ones; 13 and eight. All my children were born when I was incarcerated. But my last two were conceived while I was incarcerated because I was part of the Family Reunion program which is, like, a euphemism for conjugal visits. And New York is one of four states that allows them. If a person has good behavior and does what he needs to do, every 90 days, he could spend time with a family. And I was able to have children that way.

Chris Hayes: Wow. You're a suburban dad. You live in (LAUGH) a suburban--

Lawrence Bartley: Absolutely.

Chris Hayes: You've got teenagers. So, I wanna shift to the News Inside and some of the coverage you've been doing. What has life been like, as best as you can tell, again, you're in touch with folks and you have reporters inside durin' the pandemic?

Lawrence Bartley: Well, it was really tough because, you know, people weren't able to go to school. They weren't able to go to programs or do the things that they normally get accustomed to doing in order to survive. And there's some people who don't care to do those things. But there's others who rely on that in order to pass the time and feed their self. Those are the people who are usually the most successful.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, all the things you're describing, the basketball tournament, you know, the classes, the American Ninja Warrior, I mean, presumably, nothing like that's happening in a COVID lockdown prison.

Lawrence Bartley: Nothing because, you know, like you said at the top of the show, the social distancing was nearly impossible. But facility had to try to social distance the best they can. And to do that, they had to cancel all school, all those congregate area, all those settings where people would get together. That was cancelled.

So, people just had to kinda warehouse themselves and just have to just be inside the block or be inside a cell. And that can be torture on the mind, particularly since visits were cancelled as well. So, the people who got visits weren't able to see their family member. They weren't able to see their children.

And it was totally tough, man. And then people are droppin' dead, left and right. No one knows, you know, what to do. And then some of them are sayin', oh, guards are bringin' it in. Staff are bringin' it in. And then they're lookin' at them funny. And then, you know, back and forth. So, guards don't wanna come in because that's where the coronavirus spread the most, where it can't escape. And so, it was super horrible, man. Super horrible.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. I mean, obviously, lockdown, shutdown, which is a term that people have used on the outside obviously for COVID, you know, had its own kind of, like, frustrations and boredoms. But that's multiplied 1,000 times inside a prison where those things are really the lifeline that you have for, you know, like you said, feeding your soul.

Lawrence Bartley: Right.

Chris Hayes: So, you got this sort of long period where these normal things aren't happening that really do make a big difference for people in their lives. Some people are getting kind of different forms of compassionate release. And I imagine that had to be a crazy experience, too; I mean, a good one. But you've got people that are getting out sooner than they thought. And then some are having to go back, right, I mean, which also seems like a really brutal transition.

Lawrence Bartley: Yeah, yeah, that's the unfortunate part. But you know, the 2020 census came out and found that less people are incarcerated than before. It was, what, 2.2, 2.3 million. Now, it's maybe 2 million. And large part of that is because New York and California released a lot of people.

I can speak for New York. New York's prison population at its height in 1999 was 71,000. And today, it's somewhere around 33,000. So, there's people who have been getting out. But there's still a lotta people who are in there, in different states like West Virginia and Arkansas where incarcerated population increased.

So, there's people who are in those states who are like, yeah, wait, hey, some people are getting out elsewhere but we're not getting out. And the crime rate is going down, except for the homicide rate is going up. But overall, crime is down.

So, it's a mixed bag on what all this stuff means. But for the incarcerated individuals, a lot of 'em simply want to get out. And I won't say that all of them would thrive on the outside because there's many different circumstances that can cause a person to go back, includin' the way one views his or her self. But there's also folks, man, who probably would come out and be successful and, you know, be everything that they-- that society wants them to it's, given the opportunity. But they just can't get that opportunity.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. In your experience, and from what you've seen and folks that you know have gotten out, what are the most important factors for someone's transition from being incarcerated to being outside?

Lawrence Bartley: You know what? That's a good question. Because there's one guy who was in Wisconsin. He read News Inside a lot and he used to write me while on the inside. And he got out and he reached out to me. And you know, like, he was out, like, 30 days and he set up a Zoom call.

And we was on this call. I'm like, wait a minute, how are you settin' up Zoom calls? You've been out there (LAUGH) for only 30 days? How do you know how to do that? He said, "You know what, I had a cell phone that was smuggled to me on the inside. I could've gotten in trouble for it but I had it for months and I learned how to email. I learned how to do Zoom. I learned how to access Google Drive. I learned how to navigate social media sites. And it helped me for my transition. So, I feel like I'm ahead of the curve, you know."

But most people, it's kinda tough for them to do if they don't have that. You know, and prison systems aren't yet ready to allow people to have cell phones. But now, they have these tablets that are inside facilities. Think of them like iPads.

But some of the tablet companies are predatory. They charge people for emails. They charge people for movies. They charge people for photographs. And like I said before, they make little as $.10 an hour. They can't afford all this stuff. You know what I mean?

But then there's other tablet companies like APDS who don't charge. They allow people to complete academic task in order to earn credits, in order to purchase entertainment like movies, downloads, so on, et cetera, that are good and a person can use that in order to help reintegrate into society and not have that technology hurdle.

But other than that, even jobs are sometimes tough. I know some individuals who get master's degrees and they come out and they're makin' $38,000 and $42,000 a year. And they're supposed to see that as a win. Like, I'm winnin' now. But that's not much money, you know. They have a skill set that's better than that.

Chris Hayes: It blows my mind. I said, like, what's the most important in transitioning and you talked about technology first. You know, I thought the answer's gonna be, well, you know, family, housing, job; all this stuff. And it's like, it really is striking, 'cause that's so central to all our lives. Like, everything happens in the world outside, mediated by cell phones and the internet. And to not have it is an enormous, enormous thing to adjust to.

Lawrence Bartley: Exactly. Exactly. It's so tough to adjust to. And it could help a person's transition so much easier. Not to say those other things aren't important because housin' is very important--

Chris Hayes: Oh, obviously, right.

Lawrence Bartley: --you know. But learnin' to navigate technology can help a person do for his or her self and that can lead to all those other things.

Chris Hayes: I think that News Inside has done some Rikers reporting specifically, if I'm not mistaken. And there's been a lot of coverage of the situation in Rikers. Rikers, for those that don't know, is the main municipal jail in New York City. It's housed in an island that's off between the Bronx and Queens.

It's a complex of a bunch of different buildings. It's notorious. It has not a very good reputation. And in fact, there was a plan to get rid of it 'cause it was so bad. That plan is a little bit suspended right now. It's unclear what's gonna happen. But can you talk a little bit about what your understanding of what is happening inside Rikers and why conditions have deteriorated so much?

Lawrence Bartley: Rikers Island right now, it's in a ton of trouble and it's been goin' that way for quite a long time. But in this current space, they have about, last time I checked, it was about 1,800 officers that were absentees. They weren't comin' in to work for numerous reasons. Many say medical reasons.

And that caused many of the housin' units to not have supervision there. And there's reports of incarcerated people answerin' the phone and some for nefarious reasons but some for, they had to in order to effectuate the flow of the facility. Like, people had to get to medical. People have to get food to eat.

And they have to communicate whoever's on the outside to bring the food and distribute it inside of the housin' units. But then there are some issues where, you know, people were, I got reports that, you know, people were attackin' each other at nighttime and opening cells and that sorta thing.

And when we covered this story, we interviewed everyone. It wasn't like some reports that you would hear, just weight given to a correction officer's side or incarcerated person's side. We try to holistically involve everyone so we can give the public a clear picture of what was happening.

And correction officers anonymously spoke to us and said, hey, listen, we felt that, you know, the prison administrators were kinda leavin' us out to dry. And we felt that because of the whole solitary confinement which essentially says (there's studies that says) a person do 15 days or more in solitary confinement, that can alter a person's, you know, mental state and a person could develop mental health issues.

So, they stopped solitary confinement, startin' in March, 2022. But in the state, and on Rikers Island, they stopped it a little bit earlier. And guards started to feel that incarcerated people were sayin', okay, I'm not gonna get any disciplinary sanctions if I just attack a guard then.

So, they were attacking guards. And then some incarcerated people would say that, no, these guys were attackin' us. So, you know, these guys attack us most of the time. But inside of the piece, though, stickin' to the piece, there was, like, an incarcerated person who stated that, you know, a person identified as a female and that person was placed in a male housin' unit and that was troubling for the person.

But then, you know, they have the commissioner who once (?) I think made the point of the whole story that was just so essential. He says that what's happening at Rikers Island is what the end of mass incarceration look like. It's not gonna be pretty. It's gonna it's ugly but we have to go to this phase so we can get on the other side. And other side will be programming and that sorta thing.

Chris Hayes: That stuck with me, that quote, too, in the piece.

Lawrence Bartley: Right.

Chris Hayes: Because I couldn't tell if it was, like, a warn, I mean, right now, you know this, right. The politics. There's this real intense backlash. Politics, basically. There was, you know, years of different movements and folks working to decarcerate a country that's the most incarcerated, basically, anywhere in the world.

You've got politicians. You've got progressive prosecutors. You've got all these attempts to change bail laws and to reduce the amount of people that are incarcerated. And right now, there's a really big backlash. And the backlash, you see it in a recall effort in San Francisco against Chesa Boudin who's the district attorney there, whose father actually was incarcerated for all of his life and just released on parole.

Lawrence Bartley: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

Chris Hayes: You see it, you know, in Minnesota. They tried to run a local municipal referendum to rename the police department and make it a public safety department. That failed. You know, there's all this warning that basically, like, you reformers went too far.

And this is what happens. If people go, can get out on bail, and you stop stop and frisk, and you're not tough on crime, then homicides go up and everything unravels. And there's even people I think who say Rikers descends into chaos. This is all the fault of you reformers.

Lawrence Bartley: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

Chris Hayes: And that quote of the guy saying this is what the end of mass incarceration looks like. I couldn't tell which side of that he was on; if he was saying, like, yes, that's true. And it's interesting to hear you say it approvingly 'cause I wonder, like, what do you think about this very fraught moment right now with this backlash that's brewin'.

Lawrence Bartley: I think that there are many people who have different agendas. When they fear monger that let's say, for instance, in New York, the bail, because of the bail reform, people are getting out, people commit a lotta crimes, sometimes they are misrepresenting the facts.

It might not be people who was affected by the bail reform law that got out and committed those crimes. But to the public, if a particular news entity is shapin' the narrative or getting the narrative from forces that want the bail reform to fail, then you gonna hear that sorta thing.

And people gonna run with that, 'cause people usually run with salacious stories, controversial stories. That's what sticks with people's mind as opposed to them actually dissecting and understanding the truth. And that comes from fair reporting which is what we like to do at The Marshall Project, which is one of the reasons why I'm in journalism.

Because I wanna tell that perspective from all sides without an agenda, and challenge anyone to say that I'm slanted for one side another. 'Cause if you look at my work, it's not. It's not that. But what Vinnie Schiraldi was sayin', the way I interpreted it as he said this is what the end of mass incarceration look like, it's that there are people who, of the old guard, don't want things to change for the positive.

So, they're gonna rebel. They're gonna not do their jobs, whether they're guards or administrators on Rikers Island. They're gonna help things descend into chaos. And they're gonna point at it and say, look, look, look, it's you progressives that are doing it.

And then there are people who are on the inside who are sayin', all right, I got free rein. Then I'm gonna do somethin' crazy because I just wanna do somethin' crazy. I'm gonna hurt people and all that. And it's gonna look ugly there. Then there's people who, like, Vinnie, who are reformers and say, listen, the way to get on the other side of this is for prison administrators, guards and everyone to be on one accord, to follow the blueprint that I put in place and work the process through.

And then we'll provide programs for these individuals. We'll give them self-worth. And let the judicial system do their part. Hopefully there's a progressive judicial system against what he's tryin' to say. And then we'll all come out on the other end of this, away from mass incarceration. And we have a more ethical criminal justice system. And I think that's what he's tryin' to say.

Chris Hayes: For people that are listening to this that haven't spent time either incarcerated or visiting people that they love or know who are incarcerated and, you know, they're thinking about, well, the end of mass incarceration means people formerly incarcerated in my neighborhood or, you know, out on the streets, which is the very dehumanizing language politicians will use, I'm just curious to someone who's spent 27 years inside, like, what do you wanna say to them about the people that you spent those decades with?

Lawrence Bartley: I wanna say the type of people I spent those decades with, a lot of them are coming out now. And 95% of the people who get incarcerated, they come out. And you're livin' with them already. You're already livin' with them. They're probably on your street.

When you go to work on the train, you're livin' with them. Some of 'em are day laborers. Some of them are executives. There are all walks of people that they're just like you. And there's good and bad in every situation, you know. But I don't think it's incumbent upon me to judge people and to always point the finger and always look for the downfall of other people because it doesn't make me feel clean.

So, I would hope that other people would think about that. Like, how does it make you feel just lookin' for someone to fail, without even any evidence that the person deserves to fail? You might say, oh, that person committed a crime. But you look at all these people, these unarmed Black men, gettin' shot by police officers, but then there's other instances where Black men or people in general are getting arrested by police officers.

You think that someone caught on camera can shoot someone unethically but they can't look to arrest a person and prosecute a person and put things in motion where a person get prosecuted unfairly? That happens. You know, not to say that people are innocent. Some people commit crime. Yes, they do. But sometimes, they don't commit the crimes that they set out to commit. And sometimes (a lotta times) people do a 180 and they just want the space to be human again.

Chris Hayes: Are you religious, Lawrence?

Lawrence Bartley: Well, I wouldn't call myself subscribin' to a particular religion but I account myself bein' a highly spiritual person. And you know, I kinda move off a energy and I respect every single religion 'cause I think they have elements of that. And that's what I walk with every day.

Chris Hayes: What's the transition into being a dad in the flesh, dealing with the day-to-day of parenting, been like?

Lawrence Bartley: Well, it's totally awesome. I always wanted to do that. (LAUGHTER) You know, I felt like, you know, I put, you know, some human bein's in this world and I'm responsible for them to be safe. And I'm responsible for them growin' into be all that they can be.

And currently, my wife is-- teachin' in New York City school system. And I work primarily remotely from home. So, when she leaves for work, I get up in the morning. I get both my boys ready for school at different times. And they come in differently.

One of my sons just came in. My eight-year-old just came in. You know, I receive them and I feed them. You know, I make sure they're dressed. And the awesome part about it? You see how my children grow differently and they all have different skills. My 13-year-old, he loves to be a singer. To me, he was, like, a borderline singer. But I put him in vocal classes in order for him to be all he can be. And sometimes I take him to a studio to record songs because that's what he wants to--

Chris Hayes: That's awesome.

Lawrence Bartley: --help him. Thank you. But my eight-year-old, he saw a Bruce Lee movie when he was about five and he fell in love with martial arts. So, I put him in martial arts school. And when I was young, I used to be in martial arts so I kinda know a little bit about theory and the process.

So, I went through different martial arts school, assessing the sensei or the grand master to see if he was worthy enough to train my kid in the way I thought he could be trained. So, just bein' able to have that skill set to go into it and see and then put my son in a school, and I remember he went to his first test in order to get a rankin', to go up in rank, and he skipped two belts because he was just so awesome. And just seeing that and seein' my kids thrivin' for who they are and tryin' to fill them with all the information they need and all the exercises they need to be the best they can be, it's just one of the coolest experiences one can ever have.

Chris Hayes: Lawrence Bartley is director of News Inside, a publication being read in prisons and jails across the U.S., host of Inside Story, a video series designed for people in prisons and jails across the country. And Lawrence, what a great pleasure to talk to you. Thank you so much.

Lawrence Bartley: Thank you, Chris. Thank you for havin' me.

Chris Hayes: Once again, great thanks to Lawrence Bartley, director of News Inside, host of Inside Story, a video series designed for people in prisons and jails across the country. It was great to talk to him. You can always tweet us feedback with the #withpod; email:

Why Is This Happening is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the All In team and featured music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to

Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email “Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the “All In” team and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to