Oprah on How Ex-Prisoner Series 'Released' Tells Stories of Redemption

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From left: Jon Sinclair, Keayr Braxton, Oprah Winfrey and Shaka Senghor at the Tribeca TV Festival

The media mogul, who serves as an executive producer on the OWN series, says the new show that follows former inmates as they return home tells stories of redemption.

Oprah Winfrey loves to read, but she spent a year putting off Shaka Senghor’s book Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in An American Prison before she picked up the book based on the author’s life. And when she did, the media mogul was so moved by Senghor's story that she set up a meeting with him, which she calls “one of the best interviews of my life."

While speaking on a panel for the OWN docuseries Released at the Tribeca TV Festival, Winfrey said she asked Senghor, as she does with all of her interview subjects, what his intentions were for that interview. His response was that he “wanted people to know that you weren’t your biggest mistake.” Winfrey and Senghor are both firm believers that “everybody has the ability retell their story and to be redeemed.” And so the concept behind Released was born.

The project follows six individuals that have recently been released from prison and their families. The pilot episode introduces three of the main subjects featured on the series. Each individual was incarcerated for different offenses, but they all share the same experience of living behind bars and trying to stay out of prison once they have been released.

Executive producer Jon Sinclair said that the main intent of Released is to “humanize this issue of mass incarceration of African-Americans in America" and show that there is a human behind the label of an ex-prisoner. When it came to finding former inmates to follow, Sinclair said, “We wanted to pick characters that could bring that story to light.”

Showrunner and executive producer Keayr Braxton said Released is different than any other show about incarceration because it doesn’t focus on what it’s like inside prison, but instead looks “at what happens once people come out," specifically the often-overlooked experience of how people in this situation navigate re-entering the real world. Braxton reflected on how “incredibly powerful” all of the characters release days were. “Those first days out are just roller coasters,” she said.

Winfrey found it incredibly important that Senghor act as a consulting producer on the series, since he experienced the stories told onscreen firsthand. Senghor said watching the release process of the series' subjects “validated a lot of feelings that I had coming home.” In the first episode, which was screened ahead of the panel, one of the former prisoners, Kevin, stares in awe at the selection of candy offered at an airport convenience store. At first he is excited by the large variety in candy, but then becomes overwhelmed because the majority of the food options are new to him. “When you come back to a world that you’ve been gone from for two decades, it’s a very different world,” Senghor said.

Braxton argued that Released goes further than the experiences of six former inmates. “We really do feel like these are family stories and not just the one person that’s coming home,” she said. The series does not shy away from how a loved one's release from prison is a transitional time for all those involved. "Everyone is impacted by the absence, and everyone must readjust," Braxton said.

“I believe redemption is possible for almost everybody,” Winfrey said while discussing the importance of the series. Released intends to go beyond the stereotype of what it means to be a reformed convict and instead show that many people deserve to be forgiven. Senghor added, "I'm a firm believer that most of us have some type of faith, and a cornerstone of faith, to me, is redemption is possible.”

Released premieres Saturday, Sept. 30, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on OWN.