Meek Mill’s incarceration for minor probation infractions has prompted protest, shedding light on the plight of African Americans in the US justice system
The entry in the Pennsylvania database is stark and direct. Inmate number: ND8400. Name: Robert Rihmeek Williams. Age: 30. Height: 6ft 2in. Location: State Correctional Institution Chester.
Behind those blunt words lies a story that has exposed a running sore within the US criminal justice system. The incarceration of Williams for minor probation violations related to a crime he committed as a teenager more than a decade ago has brought some of the biggest names in music and sport rallying to his cause, spawned a new hashtag and drawn hundreds of people to the steps of Philadelphia’s City Hall to protest.
From Jay-Z to Colin Kaepernick, influential supporters have spoken out against the perceived mistreatment of Williams and what it tells us about the experiences of a generation of African Americans. The outpouring has lifted the lid on a largely overlooked iniquity, in much the same way as the unmasking of Harvey Weinstein has laid bare the sexual misconduct of powerful men.
Despite his branding as prisoner number ND8400, Williams is no ordinary inmate. When he is allowed out of his cell and on stage, he metamorphoses as Meek Mill, the Billboard chart-topping hip hop artist managed by Jay-Z’s Roc Nation with major albums including Dreams Worth More Than Money and the current release Wins & Losses to his name.
His sentencing earlier this month to two to four years in state prison for seemingly minor breaches of his probation terms has unleashed an outcry from influential voices. Jay-Z blasted what he described as the entrapment and harassment of black people, accusing the Philadelphia courts of stalking Williams and using the slightest violation to lock him back inside.
The former 49ers quarterback Kaepernick has metaphorically got back down on one knee to champion the defendant as a victim of systemic oppression. “America professes to be the land of the free, yet it has the world’s largest prison population – disproportionately America’s prisons are filled with Black bodies,” he said.
Such high-profile focus on the plight of Mill has in turn cast light on thousands of other young black people whose stories typically have no hope of being aired. In Philadelphia alone, there are 45,000 men and women who have served their time but routinely remain caught in the grip of the penal system through probation that stretches on for years, often sending them back to prison for slip-ups that can be as insignificant as turning up late for an appointment with a parole officer.
“It’s like having a full-time private babysitter,” said Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor and Georgetown academic who wrote Chokehold: Policing Black Men. “If I had a probation officer intimately looking into everything I did for five years, I think I might be in trouble – I think most people would be.”
African Americans are bearing the brunt of the burden. They form 12% of the overall US population but 40% of all parolees, and studies show they are far more likely to be sent back to prison for probation violations than their white peers.
Mill’s own story begins on 24 January 2007, almost 11 years ago, when he was stopped by police on the streets of Philadelphia. Aged 19, he was living in the north of the city with his mother as sole parent, his father having been killed in a robbery when he was five.
He had been rapping since the age of 12 and was starting to be noticed in local rap battles under his then stage name, Meek Millz. His first single, In My Bag, was still a year away.
Mill was found by the arresting officers to be carrying an unlicensed handgun and a stash of drugs. The following year, he faced a trial in which the judge, Genece Brinkley, acted as both judge and jury, convicted him and then sentenced him to up to 23 months in prison, with five years of probation to follow.
Mill was rewarded for good behavior inside prison by being let out early after eight months, on 16 January 2009. He picked up his music career where he had left off, acquiring as his first manager Will Smith’s bodyguard Charlie Mack and releasing his first studio album, Dreams & Nightmares, in 2012.
While the hip-hop community came to embrace a new rising star, few of his growing band of fans realized that behind the scenes, he remained in the clutches of Judge Brinkley. Her decision to send him back to prison earlier this month – imposing on him double the time for which he had originally been sentenced, though no new crime had been committed – was the culmination of a decade of extreme surveillance by her court.
The latest sentence was handed down for two relatively minor probation violations, both of which have been or will be dismissed. One was for a dispute with a fan trying to take his photo in an airport, the other for popping a motorbike wheelie on a Manhattan street during the filming of a music video.
The nature of the tight rein under which Mill has been held during probation – a virtual prison outside a prison – is vividly recorded in a docket filed with the Philadelphia court of common pleas, where his case has been processed. It sets out a seemingly bottomless list of interactions with the court, running to 42 pages and counting.
The docket shows that since his release in 2009, Mill has been hauled back in front of Brinkley no fewer than 34 times, 22 of them for probation violations.
Despite the fact that Mill is now 30, and barely resembles the 19-year-old who carried that gun and drugs in 2007, he is in effect treated as though he were still a child, dependent on the firm disciplinary hand of the court for his wellbeing. The docket shows that this successful musician and touring artist has to plead with Brinkley for permission to travel whenever he has a concert outside Philadelphia.
“The defendant is to report to the Probation Department to sign a new travel schedule” is a typical entry in the docket. “No travel outside of Philadelphia, Montgomery, Chester and Bucks Counties is permitted by this order” is another – made seven years after his original arrest.
The log for 15 March 2013 is particularly striking. “The defendant is to take an etiquette class as per the court’s discretion,” it says.
The reference is to an order made by Brinkley that Mill attend etiquette classes as redress for what she considered to be his regrettable use of social media. The judge thought he needed to learn how to post on Instagram and other outlets with more poise, telling him in court that such lessons were “more important than any concerts he might have”.
In December 2015 – by now almost nine years after the original offense and at the time of his chart-topping Dreams Worth More than Money album – the docket entry records: “Defendant must report every two weeks, and only do charitable events but can not do paid performances. Also not permitted to go to New Jersey (visit his mother).”
Court documents raise questions about the intense interest that Brinkley has shown Meek Mill over the past 10 years. An African American woman elected to the court in 1993, the judge has displayed what Mill’s lawyers suggest is an inappropriate level of curiosity about the defendant’s hip-hop career.
At one of the hearings, Brinkley expressed her personal disappointment at Mill’s behavior, “after all I’ve done for you over all these years trying to help you have a career and to move your career forward”. She said of the rapper: “He has the ability to be like Jay-Z, to make Jay-Z’s kind of money.”
Filings in court show that Brinkley has on several occasions urged Mill to break with Jay-Z and Roc Nation and return to his old manager Charlie Mack. “I don’t want this to be taken out of context by anyone,” she once said, adding: “It seemed as if while Mr Mack was representing him there were fewer problems with the probation department.”
Mill’s lawyers allege that in February 2016 Brinkley called him and his then girlfriend, the musician Nicki Minaj, back into her chambers for a private conversation in which she made an unconventional proposal. According to a court motion, she suggested that Mill “record a version of a song by the popular group Boyz II Men called On Bended Knee and to mention the judge specifically in the song”. When Mill refused, she allegedly replied: “Suit yourself.”
The Guardian invited Brinkley to respond to allegations about her treatment of Mill, including complaints that her recent decision to send him back to prison was excessive and cruel and driven by personal animus. She declined to comment on grounds that the matter is “subject to future litigation”.
Rashad Robinson, executive editor of the online racial justice organization Color of Change, said that Brinkley had gained a reputation in Philadelphia for using probation violations as justification for putting defendants back behind bars. She stands out, he said, even in a city that has the highest incarceration rate of any of the 10 largest US cities, where one out of every three inmates in its prisons are there for probation or parole violations rather than fresh crimes.
“It’s hard to know for certain her intentions, but what is clear is that Brinkley is a person who is comfortable wielding her power in ways that fall far short of the ethical standards of public officials,” Robinson said.
Color for Change has organized an online petition under the hashtag #FreeMeekMill demanding that Brinkley be taken off the case before the rapper gets a chance to appeal his latest sentence. So far, more than 60,000 people have signed it.
While Robert Williams, aka Meek Mill, is in SCI Chester, with little chance of getting out for at least the next two years, one small compensation may be the public attention his story has drawn to a largely hidden abuse. “The criminal process is designed to set up black men to fail,” Butler said.
“What happened to Meek Mill is a perfect example of that.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010