Why Oprah pitched a 60 Minutes story on prisons

She's no bleeding heart for prisoners, she tells 60 Minutes Overtime -- but here's why Oprah Winfrey thinks the use of solitary confinement deserves scrutiny

For this week's 60 Minutes broadcast, special contributor Oprah Winfrey pitched a story about solitary confinement, which is how she ended up in a prison cell at the most notorious state penitentiary in America.

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Oprah Winfrey in an empty SHU cell at Pelican Bay State Prison

Pelican Bay State Prison in California is known for its use of solitary confinement, and Oprah spoke to inmates who had served decades in the prison's security housing unit, also known as "the SHU," which is solitary confinement by another name.

The story is Winfrey's second report for 60 Minutes, but it was the first one she filmed when she arrived at the broadcast as a correspondent. She and producer Rome Hartman visited Pelican Bay to examine the prison reform movement that's dramatically reducing the use of solitary confinement in the United States.

"I don't have a bleeding heart about it," says Winfrey of the plight of prisoners. 

In an interview about her Pelican Bay report, Winfrey tells 60 Minutes Overtime senior producer Ann Silvio she doesn't have a "bleeding heart" about the welfare of prisoners, but she thinks the use of solitary confinement deserves scrutiny because of its impact on the mental health of prisoners.

"If you say, 'Lock 'em up and throw away the key,'--yeah, you can throw away the key, but the key's gonna always get found," says Winfrey. "Thirty years later, 15 years later, five years later, the key gets found and they're comin' out."

In the video player above, watch the full 60 Minutes Overtime interview with Oprah Winfrey and producer Rome Hartman about their 60 Minutes report "Pelican Bay."  The transcript is as follows:

OPRAH WINFREY: What do you do with your time? And how do you not lose your mind?

INMATE: Reading. You know, writin' family, exercising, that kinda thing.

OPRAH WINFREY:  I have always been drawn to and attracted to stories of people who are disenfranchised, who are what the biblical term refers to as "the least of these."

NARRATION: "The least of these" is who Oprah Winfrey went looking for in the solitary confinement cells of Pelican Bay State Prison

OPRAH WINFREY: All right guys, are we still shooting?

NARRATION: The story was her idea, says 60 Minutes producer Rome Hartman

ROME HARTMAN: So each pod has a yard.

OPRAH WINFREY: Got it.

ANN SILVIO/60 MINUTES OVERTIME: What was it like, reporting on location with Oprah Winfrey in a prison?

ROME HARTMAN: (LAUGH)

OPRAH WINFREY: How ya doing?  How ya doing?

ROME HARTMAN: The very first time she went out with a 60 Minutes crew was in a maximum-security prison, which is in the absolute middle of nowhere in California. I mean, everything logistically was challenging.

OPRAH WINFREY: And I'm wearing a vest, why?

SEC. KERNAN: Inmates using spears or even weapons, homemade weapons, have been able to harm staff.

OPRAH WINFREY: Well, thank you for the protection. (LAUGHTER)

ANN SILVIO: You went to Pelican Bay for a day, you spent time in one of the solitary confinement cells in the SHU.

OPRAH WINFREY IN THE SHU: Here inside the Pelican Bay SHU…

ANN SILVIO: I know you didn't spend significant time in there, but what's the feeling?

OPRAH WINFREY: I'm still haunted by that experience because I think for myself, the worst possible condition to live on the planet, it would be being held in a solitary confinement unit, unable to see grass or a tree or a leaf…

OPRAH WINFREY IN THE SHU: Sometimes years, and even decades at a time in this room…

OPRAH WINFREY: That is why I asked Clyde Jackson that question, "What happened to you the day you walk out of the solitary confinement for the first time in 24 years?"

INMATE CLYDE JACKSON: Well, Ms. Winfrey, to be honest with you, I was dizzy. What you feel like a foreigner.

ROME HARTMAN: Clyde Jackson has been in prison almost all of his life--you know, at one point in the interview-- he said, "I've never really accomplished anything. I've been in prison since I was 17 years old."

OPRAH WINFREY: I think about what you knew-- what he knew at 17 years old and more important what he didn't know. The guidance he had or didn't have, what puts you in prison at 17 years old? And now you're 54 years old, 31 years you've gone and you haven't seen your mother.

OPRAH WINFREY: Is your mother still alive?

CLYDE JACKSON: Yeah. She's still alive, you know? And I think the hardest part about living today is, you know, the crimes I committed and my mother. The disappointment every time I see her in her eyes.

OPRAH WINFREY: I was very moved by him, because it says to me that even the most hardened of criminals can feel, and can be changed.  

OPRAH WINFREY: So what will you be doing the rest of the day?

CLYDE JACKSON: I gotta do some, some mentorship with some youth out there in the yard and stuff right?

OPRAH WINFREY: Yeah.

ROME HARTMAN: It's hard not to feel sympathy. At the same time, he did a terrible crime and we didn't want to lose sight of that, either.

ANN SILVIO: So how do you avoid losing sight of that?

ROME HARTMAN: Well, I just think you have to hold these things in tension. Both things are true. He is a sympathetic figure to talk to and he did a terrible thing. And you can't make him out to be a victim, and you can't make him out to be a hero. You know, our storytelling has to live in that tension.

OPRAH WINFREY: So an inmate would come out of his cell and go to this area, which is called the yard?

SEC. KERNAN: Correct.

OPRAH WINFREY: So, this is it. This is the yard. This is the extent of the yard? This--

SEC. KERNAN: Yes.

OPRAH WINFREY: Well, I wouldn't exactly call it a yard. I would s-- (LAUGH).

ANN SILVIO: The worry with a story like this of course is that a viewer may be thinking, "He deserves everything he got."

OPRAH WINFREY: And I am that viewer.

OPRAH WINFREY: So what are you doing in here to better your education so that you can be a better human being when you get out?

OPRAH WINFREY: I am that viewer who thinks as you're sittin' there tellin' me about all your troubles, and how you don't have this and you don't have that, and we can't have this, and I'm thinking, "Well, you took that away from somebody else. You took that away from somebody else who's not even here to tell us about it, so why should I care about you?"

INMATE ALONZO NELSON: I'm 52. Got to the age of 52 years old and went to prison.

OPRAH WINFREY: Whoa.

ALONZO NELSON: Yeah. Domestic violence.

OPRAH WINFREY: Whoa.

ALONZO NELSON: Yeah.

OPRAH WINFREY: Wow. Okay. All the best to ya.

ALONZO NELSON:  Yeah, thank you.

ANN SILVIO: So you didn't approach this story with this sort of bleeding heart.

OPRAH WINFREY: I don't have a bleeding heart about it. But the reason why I think you deserve to be heard is 'cause one day you're gonna come out." This is what people don't realize.

OPRAH WINFREY: I might run into you in the mall, in the theatre, down the street, cutting me off in traffic. You're gonna be in my world, and so do I want you more prepared when you come out? Do I want to try to you know, find some humanity within you and allow that to rise to its highest potential?

OPRAH WINFREY: So if you say, "Lock 'em up and throw away the key," yeah, you can throw away the key. But the key's gonna always get found, 30 years later, 15 years later, five years later, the key gets found and they're comin' out.

This 60 Minutes Overtime feature was produced by Lisa Orlando and Ann Silvio.