Last November, Meek Mill published an op-ed in The New York Times reflecting on his time in prison and dissecting the broken system that had put him there. Meek, who had been sentenced to two-to-four years in prison for a technical violation of his probation, used the op-ed as a springboard for the foundation he was starting, an organization that would prioritize prisoners’ rights and addresses the systemic racism and injustice underpinning the American criminal justice system.
In January, Meek Mill and Jay-Z introduced the foundation, Reform Alliance, in an auditorium at John Jay College, announcing that they had pledged $50 million toward the initiative, which would work toward a complete overhaul of the probation and parole system as well as the freeing of one million people currently in the system over the next five years. They placed an emphasis on the inherent discrimination in the structure of probation towards the already marginalized populations of people of color and people of low socioeconomic backgrounds, and plan on confronting the disproportionate consequences of jail time for small technical violations such as missing a meeting with one’s parole officer.
This initiative stems from Meek’s own personal experience with extended probation, a result of a crime he committed in 2008. Within these past 10 years, Meek has had to return to jail twice because of parole violations, the most recent being a five-month stint — which ended last April — for popping a wheelie on a dirt bike in Manhattan. The hashtag #FreeMeekMill has come to represent more than just one famous rapper’s plight but rather the overall dysfunction of a system that has created a culture of mass incarceration.
Some have argued that Meek is the wrong symbol to rally around, that at the end of the day he is a person who has committed a crime and should be punished. However, many have united around his story that is marred by untrustworthy cops and severe sentencings by biased judges, characteristics that are unfortunately typical in the justice system.
In a New York Times op-ed written in 2017 by Jay-Z, he points out that “Meek was around 19 when he was convicted on charges relating to drug and gun possession, and he served an eight-month sentence … Now he’s 30, so he has been on probation for basically his entire adult life. For about a decade, he’s been stalked by a system that considers the slightest infraction a justification for locking him back inside.”
The Reform Alliance is to be rooted in systemic thinking, using the platform offered by media and the music industry to ask people to look at the bigger picture when considering the criminal justice system. On stage at the auditorium in John Jay College, Meek Mill and Jay-Z were joined by the board of Reform Alliance, a motley crew of corporate CEO-types that included Patriots owner (and Trump-supporter) Robert Kraft, 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin, Nets co-owner Clara Wu Tsai, Third Point Management CEO Daniel Loeb, Galaxy Digital CEO Michael E. Novogratz and Vista Equity Partners CEO Robert F. Smith. The team, which Jay-Z compared to the Avengers, was more like a panel for Shark Tank: The only person with a background in criminal justice was Van Jones, political activist and CEO of the foundation.
While many of these people have been outspoken in their support for Meek Mill, numerous board members actively enable systems that are a part of the prison industrial complex through their own businesses. For example, the 76ers utilize Aramark catering for food in their stadiums. However, Aramark is notorious for not only propagating horrible prison conditions by providing maggot-infested food but also actively utilizing corrupt prison labor. While a small example, there is a question as to whether or not the change Reform Alliance is proposing can be sustainable and progressive without a deeper self-evaluation.
The criminal justice system almost seems like a wicked problem, one so integrated into our society in so many ways that it seems impossible to overcome. Despite this, I believe that Meek Mill’s Reform Alliance is exciting and admirable in its goals and represents an attack on the deeply problematic arrest-jail-probation cycle that currently runs rampant. Action taken is better than an apathetic response. However, real change will be nuanced, far-reaching and most importantly, painful. It will be necessary to hold the entire system accountable.
A previous version of this article contained a grammar error.
Isabel Ling is a senior in the College of Art, Architecture and Planning. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Linguistics runs alternate Mondays this semester.