As part of a 1961 class project, a Stanfrd student named Ted Koppel, age 21, went inside San Quentin to study the U.S. criminal justice system. And 57 years later, he came back, this time as a correspondent with CBS Sunday Morning.
“It’s that we incarcerate more people than any other nation,” Koppel said referring to the high incarceration rate in the United States (700 prisoners per 100,000 population). He added, “That seems to be contradictory to who we are as a nation.
The U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population. However, 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated people are locked away in American prisons and jails.
When Koppel returned to Stanford last December, Dustin Stephens, a CBS Sunday Morning producer, knew Koppel was interested in doing a story about California.
“I’ve listened to almost all of the Ear Hustle podcasts,” Stephens said, referring to the San Quentin audio project featuring Earlonne Woods and Nigel Poor. Koppel, who won acclaim as the anchor of the ABC News program Nightline, thought they would make good subjects
Woods and Poor, now in their second season of podcasting, talk about commonplace topics in incarceration, such as the consequences of gang life, dying in prison and selecting a cellmate.
“I suggested doing the story and Ted liked it,” Stephens said. “What makes this news is that it’s a podcast coming from a prison, coupled with it (becoming) a success in the podcasting world.
“I don’t think most Americans are aware that there is a newsroom, podcasting, radio, and TV coming from a prison. It is our job to take America to places that they can’t go, while their money is going into them.”
Koppel is no stranger to going inside prisons. In 1998, spent the night in solitary confinement in a high security prison near, Huntsville, Tex. “There was a lot of screaming and yelling that night, and I saw a lot of ‘fishing,’” Koppel said
The newsman was referring to the practice of toss-sliding a weighted string from under a cell door to land, many yards away, under another inmate’s cell door. If missed, the string is drawn back and shot out again. Once the connection is made, supplies such as food, coffee, or reading material can be shared between inmates. Correctional officers sometimes ignore fishing.
“As reporters we never become as knowledgeable as the people we cover,” he said. “But sometimes spending a few hours in the same circumstances, we can develop some insights we might not have had before,” Koppel told the New York Daily News about that night.
On the day of his visit to San Quentin, the veteran reporter, 78, who anchored more than 1,000 Nightline shows, walked around the prison yard and the cellblocks interviewing inmates about their experiences. He heard accounts of what it’s like to spend nearly two decades in the Security Housing Unit (SHU), what it’s like to be incarcerated more than 40 years or to face a 209-year sentence. Inmates told him about race relations, respect, and the unwritten code of the yard
“There are not are a lot of prison stories in mainstream media. But, when they are covered, they’re usually negative. It’s more complicated than that,” Stephens said. “Ted has a long history of covering criminal justice policies.”
Koppel dropped in on prisoners rehearsing Shakespeare’s King Lear.
“I don’t think most of America is aware that there is a newspaper, podcasting, radio, and filming coming from a prison”
The actors asked Koppel if he’d like to read a line.
Smiling, he accepted.
Afterward, Koppel took a bow that was met with applause. He sat among the inmates and watched a demonstration of the principles found in drama therapy, as director Leslie Currier asked the men questions about the play, themselves, and the characters they portrayed.
Producer Louis A. Scott, a prisoner, interviewed Koppel for San Quentin Radio.
Koppel’s career began at 23 when he was asked to cover the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
As to why he chose to become a journalist, he cites the memory of himself as a three-year-old listening to World War II broadcasts of Edward R. Morrow, the legendary CBS correspondent who covered the war from London.
Koppel’s career includes marching with Martin Luther King, Jr., spending a year as a war correspondent in Vietnam, and covering the Watts riots in 1965.
Koppel said he recalls standing next to the “mule driven carriage,” that carried the coffin of Dr. King, murdered in Memphis in 1968. Later Koppel saw a photo with about 300 people surrounding the carriage. His was the only white face in the crowd.
San Quentin Radio producer Scott said, “What impressed me the most about Ted is the fact that he marched from Selma to Montgomery with MLK. He marched because he believes in equality and still shares those same views of equality today.”