“This is a story in which there is injustice in every crack and crevice.”
In the belly of Ziegfeld Ballroom, Meek Mill’s grainy mugshot lights up the venue’s gilded walls. His tired eyes, sunken into his skull beneath severe bruising and what appears to be poorly placed bandaging, stare blankly ahead, as if surveying the scene below in quiet disbelief. “Dreams and Nightmares” rumbles through the loudspeakers, sending shivers through the chandeliers that hang from above.
The extravagance of the setting and accompanying excitement that radiates from those in attendance feels surreal if undeniably fitting given the occasion and context behind it. Meek Mill’s entire life up to this point has been defined by an encounter that he had with Philadelphia police on January 24, 2007 at the age of 19, one that left him bloodied, bruised, and unconscious following a so-called “drug raid” in which law enforcement officers used his head as a battering ram on the door of his home. In the aftermath of that fateful night, he has suffered years of judicial scrutiny from Judge Genece Brinkley, a woman who has obsessed over his case and derived immense pleasure from holding the threat of the gavel over his head (the growing list of her inappropriate actions includes allegations that she took Meek and then-girlfriend Nicki Minaj to her chambers to request that the two record a remix of a Boyz II Men song. She denies it.) Said reporter Paul Solotaroff of Rolling Stone, “I have never seen a case built on less.”
And yet Brinkley is but one cog in a much larger contraption that has thwarted Meek at every turn, from his days as a rising local artist to his current status as a pillar of his community. The reality is that Meek has been on probation for the entirety of his adult life, subjected to a system that has had him imprisoned and placed under house arrest on multiple occasions over the course of his decade-long career despite the fact that he’s never been charged with another crime.
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The frustrations and horrors of Meek’s story are all too familiar for people of color, a running point of emphasis in the upcoming Free Meek documentary, set to premiere on Amazon on August 9. Not only does the 5-part series offer an in-depth look at Meek’s journey through a system that has salivated at the prospect of dragging him back into the courtroom, but it highlights the lesser known aspects of this cycle of injustice. Much has been made of America’s carceral state in recent years, but rarely has the public eye been drawn to the less-publicized (and equally dysfunctional) post-conviction system, one that is rigged against racial minorities and has perpetuated poverty by erecting barriers designed to tear down those it targets. Rather than living up to its purported status as a path out of the criminal system, probation is instead designed to keep people entangled through technical violations. To quote a USA Today op-ed penned by philanthropist Laura Arnold, Reform Alliance CEO Van Jones, and Philadelphia 76ers partner Michael Rubin, probation acts not as a solution but as a “key contributor” to mass incarceration in that it “undermines (one’s) ability to work, earn an education and live a healthy, productive life”
What’s most startling is just how many people are impacted by the probation “trap.” According to Pew Trusts, “4.5 million people are on probation or parole—twice the incarcerated population, including those in state and federal prisons and local jails.” Furthermore, “1 in 55 U.S. adults (nearly 2 percent) was on probation or parole in 2016 (the most recent year for which data are available), a population increase of 239 percent since 1980.” A separate study by The Council of State Governments Justice Center found that nearly half of prison admissions in America are due to supervision failures, an astonishingly high number that speaks to the broken nature of probation’s administrative rules. In states like Meek’s own Pennsylvania, it’s more than half. To make matters worse, a quarter of all state prison admissions stem from mere technical violations of supervision. Breaking even the most innocuous rules has the potential to trigger a system that actively seeks out “aimless and excessive punishment” for those locked in its jaws. It all amounts to $2.8 billion each year for state taxpayers, a burden that falls squarely on the shoulders of the underprivileged and under-supported.
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Free Meek is unwavering in its impartiality on the matter, and calls for radical changes needed to address the egregious disparities that sentenced a teenage Meek to two years behind bars despite a complete and utter lack of evidence (it took his family 6 months to raise the $500 cash bail after he opted for a nonjury trial). Luke Brindle-Khym and Tyler Maroney of Quest Research & Investigations, the firm that helped uncover evidence used to free Meek in 2018, offered forth some insights as to how their involvement in the case materialized. “Initially, the focus was on (Brinkley), and trying to understand how she could have sent (Meek) to prison when the prosecutor didn’t think that there was any prison time warranted,” said Brindle-Khym. “But pretty quickly into the case we realized that this was not just about one judge and one defendant, this was about systematic corruption. We shifted the focus to what happened with the Philadelphia police department and how Meek was arrested in the first place.”
The extent to which police corruption impacted Meek’s initial arrest is just one of many shocking revelations that Free Meek unveils. A new report released by Rolling Stone claims that “dozens of civil lawsuits” are connected to Meek’s now notorious judge. And it may just be the tip of the iceberg. “We simply searched for her name in public databases that frankly anyone can do,” admitted Maroney. “But what we were doing was using a strategy that no one had ever used before in this case, which was to look for information that might impune the credibility of the very person whose boot was on Meek’s neck. And we didn’t find just one lawsuit, or two, or ten, or twenty. We found dozens of lawsuits that suggested that this was somebody who may have alternative motives.”
In 2017, Judge Brinkley saw to it that Meek was sentenced to an additional two-to-four years in prison for popping a wheelie on a dirt bike in what was deemed a violation of his probation under “police contact,” even though NYC authorities had dropped the charges against him. The #FreeMeek campaign caught fire on social media shortly thereafter, with the severity of his punishment and celebrity status helping spur forward a much larger national conversation surrounding America’s longstanding history of mass incarceration. Since then, Meek has parlayed his legal ordeal into work as an activist, and now helps lead the crusade for probation reform as a co-chair of the aforementioned Reform Alliance. In the meantime, his music continues to reflect the trauma that stems from years of being hounded by such a system. “It’s like trap gospel for someone who’s living in those type of conditions,” he told Vanity Fair in a recent interview. “Hearing someone express that to you is like therapy.”
The prolonged injustice that he’s endured mercifully came to an end on July 24, when the Pennsylvania Superior Court overturned his original conviction. Though there remains the possibility of a retrial, Meek’s prospects seem hopeful now that prosecutors have deemed policeman Reginald Graham’s suspect testimony ineligible. Per AV Club, “Graham eventually left the force after being caught stealing money and lying about it in an internal police investigation.” Another officer who was at the scene has since stated that Graham lied about Meek pointing a gun at them, seemingly nullifying the “simple assault” charge that was the most serious of the bewildering 19 in total that the rapper was slapped with following his violent arrest.
On the same day that he got the good news about his case, Meek announced a partnership between his own Dream Chasers and Jay-Z’s Roc Nation in what could prove to be a much larger creative relationship now that Free Meek is on the verge of being made available to the public. Meek's future is brighter than it has been in years, but that doesn’t mean that his quest is fulfilled, or that his focus on the much broader situation at hand has waned. When asked what’s next now that his 11-year probation has been lifted, Meek replied with a toothy grin: “Get more money, spend time with my family, work harder. Nothing changes. I just got my (overdue) freedom. I’m going to continue what I’ve been doing.”
Free Meek premieres on Amazon on August 9.