The recent scene that unfolded was one that was both all too familiar and yet still a foreign concept for many: a Black man being released from prison following a lengthy sentence behind bars. He hugged his waiting family and friends before being driven away to confront his newfound freedom. A camera crew was on hand to film the entire episode that would later be televised.
On the surface that may sound like one of the dozens of so-called reality TV shows that have dominated pop culture for all the wrong reasons. But that scene was actually the beginning of a deep dive into the complex waters of life that former inmates must navigate on their quest for post-prison normalcy as explored in “Released,” the new docu-series airing on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). While the stigma of having been in prison is one that is not easily shed, there are myriad other obstacles newly freed prisoners must overcome.
“These are fellow citizens,” Shaka Senghor, contributing producer of “Released,” said of former prisoners during an interview with NewsOne on Friday. “They’re humans who shouldn’t be judged for the rest of their lives based on a poor decision.”
The show, which followed the prison releases in real-time of six former inmates, was a chance to prove that despite the challenges of acclimating to civilian life, they can still “come out and do something meaningful,” said Senghor, who previously served 19 years in prison for second-degree murder.
Senghor used that experience as motivation to become an effective storyteller through the written word. But it took something that he didn’t write – a letter from his son he received while serving time – to provide him with perspective and inspiration to author his 2013 book, “Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison.” That defining moment sort of encapsulated much of what “Released” is all about, he explained.
“What actually works [for life after prison] is having the love and support of people who are willing to hold you accountable as you make your adjustment back to society,” said Senghor, who first shared details of that pivotal moment in his life during an episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show. “So critical to a person’s success is having people who believe in me, people who help me stay on the straight path.”
Those elements are on full display in “Released,” for better or for worse, in various scenes that underscore the wide range of emotions family members can feel when their loved ones get released from prison.
Senghor stressed that although “Released” is a television production, “there was no script, no direction.” That fact, he said, was crucial to showing the travails that surround getting out of prison, especially as they relate to how family life is affected by imprisonment.
“Behind the statistics and data, they’re real people,” Senghor said of former prisoners. “This is a real life experience that people are going through. We just really wanted to show that reality.”
But what was most important to Senghor was providing viewers with a nuanced perspective that many times gets lost in the ongoing conversation about mass incarceration.
“There is a shame attached to” being a convict, even after a debt is repaid to society through imprisonment, Senghor acknowledged. “We want people to get over that shame.
“Human beings are redeemable,” he added. “These are our brothers and sisters.”
“Released” is scheduled to air over the course of eight weeks on OWN on Saturday nights at 10 p.m. ET, 10 p.m. PT and 9 p.m. CT. The second episode airs tonight.
Watch the season’s trailer below.