Back in the summer of 2015, Meek Mill sat in a restaurant in New York’s meatpacking district and described the horrors of spending several incarcerated months in solitary confinement. “I know it can’t be healthy for your mind,” he said, after ordering a mid-afternoon spread of mussels and crab cakes. “Being in the world doing anything you want, to, one day, being locked down 23 hours a day. It’s like hell. It’s mental torture.”
Two years later, the 30-year-old rapper faces that same perdition — on Nov. 6, he was sentenced to 2-4 years in a Pennsylvania state prison for violating his probation. But what initially looked like another example of a successful artist who couldn’t fully extract himself from a troubled past has ballooned into something larger: a cause celebre that has been inflamed by widespread public outcry and courtroom intrigue.
As Mill stews in the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill near Harrisburg, the disconcerting details of his imprisonment have generated attention online and off. The hashtag #freemeekmill metastasized across social media, celebrities like JAY-Z, Kevin Hart and Colin Kaepernick charged to his defense, and a Change.org petition decrying his punishment as “harsh and unjust” attracted over 360,000 signatures (the petition was even linked in an Atlantic Records press release).
On Monday, hundreds of fans staged a protest in Philadelphia’s Center City and collectively chanted the lyrics, “Time I spent on some locked up shit / In the back of the paddy wagon / cuffs locked on wrists” from Mill’s song “Dreams and Nightmares (Intro).” At the rally, rapper Rick Ross, who signed Mill to his Maybach Music Group label in 2011, addressed the crowd while flanked by Sixers basketball legend Julius Erving. “It wasn’t simply a miscarriage of justice,” Ross said. “It was an abortion of justice.”
While Mill’s stature as a nationally-recognized musician and his cadre of celebrity supporters make his situation unique, his legal woes are familiar. For many, the case is emblematic of a draconian and arbitrary penal system that can wrap its viselike jaws around an offender’s ankle for too long—and, in particular, brutalizes African Americans (among countless stomach-churning examples, a 2014 USA Today study found that at least 70 police departments arrested black people 10 times more frequently than non-black people). One Instagram meme compared Mill’s punishment to that of Brock Turner, the white Stanford student who was sentenced to six months in county jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. Turner ended up serving three months.
A recent Marshall Project survey revealed that over 61,250 people are in American prisons for “technical” violations—like Mill, they broke the rules of parole but did not necessarily commit a new crime—but that number does not include those held in local jails and data from eight states. “Parole or probation frequently carry conditions that hinder someone’s ability to successfully reenter society,” said Will Heaton, director of public policy at the Center for Employment Opportunities, a national nonprofit organization that helps people who have served time return to the workforce. “These ineffective practices put thousands of people back in prison and only worsen the criminal justice system’s unjust impact on families and communities.”
The ongoing legal imbroglio stems from a 2008 case in which a teenaged Meek, who was born Robert Williams, was arrested in North Philadelphia on gun and drug possession charges. Violence was common in his neighborhood, and, when I interviewed Mill for a Billboard profile in 2015, he described the environment in macabre terms. “When I used to go to the door—I don’t know if i’m crazy for this—I used to be smelling the air,” he said. “What you think I was smelling? Death.”
On the way to a corner store for a Dutch Masters cigar, Mill was surrounded by undercover police. He was carrying a gun. By his account, the police handcuffed him and dragged him back inside his house, where they bludgeoned him senseless. “They knocked me out like seven times,” he said, showing me a mugshot photo of his bruised and bandaged face on his phone (it would later be the cover of 2016’s Dreamchasers 4 mixtape). “Face beat beyond crazy. All of a sudden my blood on the ceiling, on the floor.”
Mill said he was accused of pointing his gun at the police and directly selling them drugs, but maintains that neither occurred. “I’m an honest guy,” he said. “It’s been ten years now. I did not do that.” He was subsequently convicted and, after spending eight months in prison, was released with five years of probation.
The case has haunted Mill for nearly a decade. After violating his parole with indiscretions like leaving Philadelphia without authorization and submitting water instead of a urine sample, Mill was subjected to five months in jail, house arrest, $10,000 etiquette lessons and an additional six years of probation. His current jam is the result of a fracas in March at a St. Louis airport (charges were dismissed), and an August arrest for reckless driving that occurred after New York City police spotted him on social media doing wheelies on an illegal dirt bike without a helmet, taillights or a license plate.
Even Back in 2015, Mill bemoaned the fragility of his freedom. “I’ve been to jail three times for the same case,” he said, before speaking from the perspective of the criminal justice system. “The first mistake you make, I’m allowed to take you off the street for all the rest of them years I gave you for probation. It could be trespassing. It could be pissing on the sidewalk. If you was addicted to a drug and had dirty urine, I’m allowed to give you two years. I don’t think people know how serious it is.”
The relative harmlessness of Mill’s violations and the ancient date of the original conviction have amplified calls for leniency. At a Nov. 7 concert in Dallas, JAY-Z minced few words. “I gotta say something about a young man named Meek Mill,” he told the crowd. “He caught a charge, he was about 19, he’s 30 now…he got to do two to four years because he got arrested being on a bike popping a fucking wheelie.” He continued his crusade in an op-ed for The New York Times: “What’s happening to Meek Mill is just one example of how our criminal justice system entraps and harasses hundreds of thousands of black people every day,”
Heaton echoed JAY-Z’s opinion: “Incarcerating Meek is not going to help him at all nor provide any community benefit,” he said. “The larger issue, though, is how long he has been on probation and how this type of treatment by the criminal justice system can only hinder success and one’s ability to lead a more positive fulfilling life.”
No one would dispute that Mill’s career has taken a steep upward trajectory since that eventful 2008 evening. His debut solo album, Dreams and Nightmares, was certified gold in 2012. The 2015 follow-up, Dreams Worth More Than Money, went platinum. While the end of his relationship with Nicki Minaj and a self-immolating squabble with Drake curdled his rise, Mill remains a legitimate rap star. But beyond commercial success, he has transformed into a role model, especially in the Philadelphia community: he’s given away hundreds of Thanksgiving turkeys (which earned praise from Michael Nutter, then the mayor of Philadelphia), donated 60,000 bottles of water to a Flint, Michigan charity, and volunteered to headline last year’s Sixers Foundation Youth Gala, which raised nearly a million dollars.
Last week, Michael Rubin, a co-owner of the Philadelphia 76ers, wrote an open letter to Genece E. Brinkley of the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, who is the judge in Mill’s case. “I have personally witnessed him engage in quiet acts of charity and uncommon decency to those less fortunate than him,” he said. “I can say without hesitation that he is on the verge of becoming an outstanding citizen.”
While Rubin’s letter credited Brinkley for keeping Mill on the straight and narrow, most of Mill’s advocates are less complimentary of the judge’s performance. Recently, a cascade of serious (and bizarre) allegations have drawn into question the motivation behind her heavy-handed sentencing. While neither the district attorney nor Mill’s probation officer recommended incarceration, Brinkley seemed personally offended by Mill’s behavior and insisted on a harsher sentence. “I gave you break after break, and you basically just thumbed your nose at this court,” she said from the bench.
In an interview with Billboard, Mill’s lawyer, Joe Tacopina, claimed that Brinkley was “infatuated with Meek” and detailed a slew of improprieties. According to Tacopina, she showed up at one of Mill’s community service requirements, asked him to leave Roc Nation to sign with her friend and longtime Philadelphia music manager Charlie Mack, and even requested that he re-record Boyz II Men’s “On Bended Knee” with a shout-out to her.
“Meek made it out of his community and became a true superstar and maybe she wants to have certain control of him,” Tacopina speculated. “Maybe she’s jealous of him. Maybe she felt scorned that he didn’t add her in a song that she may have requested for. I don’t know.” According to a story that broke in the New York Post’s Page Six, the FBI has launched an investigation into Brinkley’s conduct.
For Meek Mill, like many others, this story is not about TMZ or Twitter hashtags or the subsect of Drake fans who giggle at his dire circumstances. It is about the chilling impact of incarceration on his life and those who depend on him.
“I’m the money man when it come to my family tree,” Mill said, in 2015. “I got 30 people that work for me, that was unemployed at the time I was locked up. And most important, I had a son.
“He was three-years old at the time and coming to see me in jail,” Mill continued of his son Rihmeek. “He was asking me to come get him from school—that was the biggest thing to me.”