This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The Notebook is one of 15 news organizations in The Reentry Project, a solutions-oriented focus on the issues facing formerly incarcerated Philadelphians. The aim is to produce journalism – across the city and across media platforms – that speaks to the challenges of reentry and what can be done about them.
Since being sentenced to two to four years in state prison for violating his probation, Meek Mill has become the face of prison reform in Philadelphia and has received support from some of the biggest names in entertainment, including the king of hip-hop, Jay-Z.
On Friday night, the 48-year-old rapper brought his tour to the Wells Fargo Center, where he performed songs from his Grammy-nominated album, 4:44. In between songs, Jay-Z addressed the incarceration of Mill, who is signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation management company.
Jay-Z has been an outspoken advocate for criminal justice reform and hasn’t shied away from speaking out against the sentencing.
“When you see a young man and he’s been on probation 11 f—in’ years, since he was 19 years old, that man is being stalked by the system,” the rapper said. “This man is in jail for doing a wheelie and breaking up a fight. Free Meek Mill.”
Mill, 30, has been on probation since 2009 stemming from a 2008 gun and drug case for which he served an eight-month sentence. Mill’s probation was originally for five years, but violations, mostly for breaking travel restrictions, added more time.
Back in August, during author Van Jones’ “We Rise” Tour, Mill spoke about how the 2008 charge still followed him.
“I can’t leave the city without asking another adult, ‘Can I take my son to Dorney Park or to Disney World?’” he told Jones. “I am still suffering from that to this day.”
In 2017, Mill was arrested twice. Once was for an altercation in a St. Louis airport, in which the charges were later dropped, and the other was in Manhattan for doing stunts on his dirt bike. Video of his ride appeared online.
Judge Genece Brinkley, 61, has been assigned to Mill’s case since 2008, and in November, she appeared to become frustrated with Mill’s behavior. Although the prosecution advised against prison time, Brinkley sentenced Mill to serve two to four years in state prison for violating his probation. The sentence came as a shock to Mill, his lawyers, and many in the community.
Since then, Mill has been the centerpiece of the conversation about prison reform in Philadelphia. His celebrity has brought more attention to a criminal justice system that many say is in need of change.
“Meek Mill is just a symbol of what goes on every day,” said J. Jondhi Harrell, executive director of the Center for Returning Citizens, an organization that aids former prisoners in re-entering society, before the show.
“If you’re on probation, you know that you are a criminal and you are walking a very, very thin line,” Harrell said. “Granted, Meek has done some dumb things and he has been irresponsible, but irresponsibility is a hallmark of young people. And many of the things he has done wouldn’t warrant him getting two to four years.”
Kia, a psychologist in the District who declined to give her last name, said situations like Mill’s show how the criminal justice system “continues to make an example out of us [black people], and I don’t think it is necessarily fair.”
“It is fortunate that he has an audience,” she said, “a stage where he can shine a light to it that maybe your cousin, who doesn’t have anybody who is going to speak for him or doesn’t have the money to get out of jail, and is sitting there and doesn’t have the stage.”
She said she had seen students become trapped in the court system because they aren’t given much room to be young and grow.
“Give them a minute to be what you want them to be. But you’re watching them, and if they sneeze wrong, you’re trying to lock them up. But you want them to go to school, you want them to get a job, but how?”
Vic Mensa, a Chicago rapper who is also signed to Roc Nation, opened for Jay-Z. During his set, he compared mass incarceration to slavery and saluted the Philadelphia fans for their support of Mill.
“At the end of the day, this is not just a black thing,” said Mensa. “Anybody with a heart should be able to see nobody deserves to be a slave in 2017 going into 2018.”