The team at New York-based Lucky 8 TV is well-versed in the complexities of America’s prison system.
The prodco’s breakout hit 60 Days In follows volunteers who go undercover as inmates in Indiana’s Clark County Jail. Behind Bars: Rookie Year, another docuseries for A&E, features new correctional officers as they begin their careers inside the walls of one of the most dangerous prison systems in America.
But one of Lucky 8′s latest projects shifts focus from what it’s like inside prison, to what happens when people come out.
Released, which premieres Sept. 30 at 10 p.m. EST/PST on OWN, follows six formerly incarcerated individuals as they learn how to return to society after spending years — and in some cases decades — in prison.
“With series such as 60 Days In and Behind Bars, we really take viewers inside the experience of being incarcerated and raising awareness of what incarceration looks like in America,” says Kim Woodard, co-president of Lucky 8 TV and executive producer of Released. “We wanted to show people that the story doesn’t end there, and we felt well-positioned to understand the issues and get access.”
In the U.S., more than 10,000 men and women are released from prison every week. “These stories are happening, and we felt there was little coverage,” says Woodard. “Giving voice to the people being released and their family members who have been impacted…the more we looked at it, the more important and urgent it felt for us to create the series.”
Casting the individuals featured in Released was no easy feat. While access is always a factor in documentary filmmaking, working with prison administration creates an extra layer of difficulty. “You can’t exactly send an email or a casting notice,” Keayr Braxton, an executive producer and showrunner, tells realscreen.
The crew sent letters into prisons in search of potential candidates. And even after filming began, casting continued.
“We started with a group of people we very much hoped we could follow, but from one week to the next, a person’s parole could be pushed or denied,” explains Braxton.
The result was a large and unpredictable production window, with the first person to be released at the end of November, and the last person released in April.
Adding to the casting complexity, Woodard and Braxton were focused not only on the individuals being released — each person had to have someone equally significant on the outside, waiting for them.
“We were casting in pairs,” explains Braxton. “The relationships between the incarcerated individuals and their families were important in showing how they were able to adapt.”
The theme of family and relationships works to make the series relatable to all viewers, and Braxton and Woodard credit the team at OWN for their ability to find the universal emotion in the stories they produce.
At Realscreen West in June, OWN’s EVP programming and development with Jonathan Sinclair told audiences that 50% of the OWN audience has a connection to the mass incarceration issue. Released is part of the network’s effort to “go deeper” into the issues its audience is wrestling with.
The network brought in former inmate-turned author-and motivational speaker Shaka Senghor as a consulting producer on the project. He helped the crew identify significant moments during production and offered advice based on his experiences.
Senghor’s input aided the crew in being sensitive to both the characters being followed in Released, as well as its viewers.
The first hurdle, says Woodard, is appealing to an audience to connect and root for the former inmates, in spite of knowing that there is a reason they were incarcerated.
Secondly, Woodard and Braxton needed to be thoughtful in researching each person’s crime, in some cases reaching out to the victims that were affected.
Finally, the crew was conscious of casting individuals who seemed ready to be followed.
“We know that a vast majority of people who are released in the U.S. do re-offend, so we wanted to make sure the individuals we followed were strong and stable enough to handle cameras being around them,” says Woodard. “That we wouldn’t push them down the wrong path.”
Ultimately, says Woodard, Released aims to bring light to the issue of mass incarceration of African-Americans in America. “When you recognize that it’s a widely shared experience that has not had a presence on the screen…people have to be able to share that story and show what it’s like to have a broader conversation,” she says.
Released premieres Sept. 30 at 10 p.m. EST/PST on OWN. It is exec produced by Oprah Winfrey alongside Lucky 8 TV′s Greg Henry, Kim Woodard, Jarrett Lambo and Keayr Braxton. Author and advocate Shaka Senghor serves as consulting producer.