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On a recent visit to Sing Sing Correctional Facility, Lawrence Bartley was greeted by a grateful audience, recognized as someone who has been there and back.
“’Cause every time I do my job, I think of you guys,” Bartley told his former cellmates and others at the maximum-security prison in New York state.
Bartley — free on parole after over 27 years in prison and now working at The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization focused on criminal justice issues — has created a magazine for the incarcerated.
He is the director of “News Inside,” which is filled with work from reporters at the Marshall Project and is distributed in prisons and jails. Since its first issue in February, the magazine is now in 320 facilities in 37 states, Washington, D.C., and Canada.
“At the Marshall Project, our aim is to create and sustain a sense of urgency around the criminal justice system. And that's what I'm doing with ‘News Inside,’ for people who need it the most,” Bartley told NBC’s Lester Holt.
Bartley was convicted of second-degree murder when he was 17 years old after a deadly gunfight in a movie theater in 1990. While in prison, Bartley shared his story through “Voices From Within,” an educational project in which the incarcerated tell their stories on camera in an effort to steer young adults away from criminal behavior.
“Now that part of my life is over, and now it's my turn to, to do something that is that is positive for people and show that that I can rebound from where I came from and other people can rebound from the darkest places of their lives,” said Bartley.
Shortly after his parole last year, Lawrence had an idea. “I figured if I could create a magazine chock full of stories that are done by the Marshall Project, who have some super-smart reporters who go around the country getting the weeds of issues and write these beautifully smart stories,” Bartley told Holt.
“If I could let the guys read this and the girls and the children on the inside, I knew it would change their life because I know what they care about,” he said. “I knew the stories … [were] definitely something that they would cling” to.
The magazine includes stories from how virtual reality is helping juvenile lifers prepare for life on the outside, to Shakespeare in prison, to a pilot program at a Connecticut prison called T.R.U.E., focused on helping rehabilitate younger offenders from 18 to 25 years old.
The Marshall Project’s editor-in-chief told NBC News that Bartley saw firsthand the need for such a publication.
“It was Lawrence's brainchild because, having been incarcerated, he understood so keenly what incarcerated people were denied,” editor Susan Chira said. “And I think that's why it's been so important to have him on our staff because he can help us reach a whole new audience who need work that's written by people who know about the criminal justice system and who understand it in a deep and rigorous way.”
Bartley said he also knew what precautions to take with a magazine that would be distributed in prisons.
“I made sure ‘News Inside’ — even down to the way it's [bound] — won't raise any alarms,” Bartley told Holt. The stories in the magazine are not going to “incite unrest, nothing inflammatory.” Instead, he said, it’s going to be stories that “tend to incarcerated people’s minds and try to help them to believe in themselves.”
Bartley said this is his way of helping those he left behind.
“I'm just finding a way to reach back. And, on top of that, I'm trying to send a message to everyone incarcerated not to ask the public for sympathy. I don't want anyone to believe that the public owes them anything and they can't do anything without help from the public,” Bartley told Holt.
“I want them to believe that they can do it because they feel that they are valuable, they feel that they're powerful in they own right, and they can do positive things by themselves.”