Here is a sobering statistic that some may know, and others may find hard to believe. According to a report by the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group for prison reform based in Washington, D.C., one in three black males in the United States will go to prison in their lifetime. That’s thirty-three percent. To put that into perspective, if you are a black male standing in line next to two other black males at the grocery store, one of you either has been, or will be incarcerated at some point in time. A thirty three percent chance of winning are good odds when betting on a shell game, but when gambling on a person’s life and freedom, not so much. The report in which the “one-in-three” statistic was referenced was published in August of 2013, and those numbers haven’t changed for at least more than a decade prior to that study. Statistics such as these can be indiscriminate, cold, and unforgiving, and only when one replaces a number with a name do we begin to realize that we are speaking about more than mathematics. They become brothers, fathers, sons, and husbands…loved ones, and not just human capital.
In an effort to put a name and a voice to at least one life that he feels has been wrongly convicted, singer, songwriter, and producer, Ty Dolla $ign titled his debut album “Free TC,” TC being his older brother Gabriel “TC” Griffin. Though the title alluded to the project simply being a dedication to his older sibling, the upcoming release of a documentary titled, “Free TC,” delves deeper into how the incarceration of his brother has impacted Ty and his family, who have continued to fight to have TC’s sentence overturned on a wrongful conviction appeal. Alongside a panel of advocates for prison reform, Ty took the stage at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood to screen the documentary for a select group. Often engaging and rarely without a winning smile, Ty was noticeably stoic, addressing the crowd briefly before showing the 15 minute documentary: “Usually, the songs are more about positive times and fun times, but this is what’s going on. Here we go.”
Directed by Daniel Kaufman, the black and white short gives a brief, but powerful look at the influence TC had on Ty, and how their family’s musical roots (their father, Tyrone Griffin was a member of the 70’s funk band, Lakeside) has tied them together throughout their lives. Griffin, who has been in prison since 2004, was given a 67 years-to-life sentence and is currently at California’s Calipatria State Prison. Throughout the documentary, several testimonials provided by family members speak to TC’s innocence, and how aspects of the case, including the disbarring of his defense attorney, added to the horrible circumstances. Though the timing of the documentary’s release is curious (“Free TC” was released last November, over four months ago), it will be included as part of the release of a deluxe edition of the album, including four new tracks that will be available on March 25th.
The documentary was tactfully paired with a panel comprised of advocates, some of whom had done their own stints in prison and were also wrongfully convicted. Hosted by 92.3 FM radio personality, Big Boy, each member of the panel took moments to share not only their experiences within the criminal justice system, but what they are doing to enact change and reduce the likelihood of others being imprisoned for a crime they didn’t commit. James Anderson, a former felon who turned his life around and is now a Political Science major at UCLA, as well as the Program Coordinator for the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, had this to say about how to address the wrongs of the criminal justice system: “We now have a voice…we have people like Ty Dolla, people like John Legend that are bringing this to the front of the stage. The key to making this successful is to not just allow it to be a speech, not just allow it to be words, but getting out and [voting]…getting your kids to be engaged in this, because if we don’t engage our community, then we’re just doing a lot of lip service.” When asked about the role of hip-hop and what responsibility it has as part of the discussion, Anderson offers, “I think hip-hop plays a huge role. But I think we also have to understand that hip-hop evolves, as the time evolves. People from now can look back and say Tupac’s lyrics were very violent and destroying, but they weren’t, because in that moment, he was finding a way to reach an audience that was hurt. He was finding a way to use the very tool that they were using to destroy us, to try and bring us some type of empowerment, because we were crumbling. So I think as time moves forward, hip-hop has to move forward with that time, and understand that it influences so much of the way the young kids think in the streets.”
Given the frequency of convictions due to plea deals, and the pervasive racial disparity within the criminal justice system, one can only imagine how many of those convicted, are actually innocent. Unfortunately, getting an answer to that question seems ever elusive, though some work is being done to at least have some idea. The opening sentence in the abstract of a study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is very telling, stating the following:
“The rate of erroneous conviction of innocent criminal defendants is often described as not merely unknown, but unknowable.”
Though that study has used survival analysis of death row inmates to estimate that 4.1% of those inmates would be exonerated if their case were revisited, they caution that that percentage is conservative and could potentially be much higher. Again, numbers can be indiscriminate, cold, and unforgiving, but one can only hope that projects like “Free TC” can help give a voice to those whose voices have been wrongfully stifled.
For information on prison reform advocacy, visit the following sites:
The Anti-Recidivism Coalition: http://www.antirecidivism.org/
Revolve Impact: http://revolveimpact.com/
My Anti-Gang: http://www.myantigang.com/
The Actors’ Gang Prison Project: http://www.theactorsgang.com/prisonproject
Words by: Mark Anthony Jenkins (@markanthonyj20)