Rap superstar Jay Z is helping shine a light on prison reform by co-producing an upcoming TV documentary about a young man who spent three years behind bars without trial for allegedly stealing a backpack.
The rapper teamed up with Harvey Weinstein to produce the six-part "TIME: The Kalief Browder Story," which airs in January on Spike TV. It uses first-person accounts, prison footage and cinematic re-creations to explore what Jay Z called a system that's "broken."
Browder was 16 when he was arrested on suspicion of stealing a backpack and sent to the Rikers Island facility in New York for three years. Browder was kept in solitary confinement for 800 days and, according to his lawyer, beaten by inmates and guards. He was never tried and was released in 2013. He killed himself last year at age 22.
Jay Z, attending a press conference Thursday with Browder's mother, the filmmakers and Weinstein, said he hoped Browder's story "inspires others and saves other lives."
"I think it's very clear that solitary confinement for a 16-year-old is wrong to every single person in here," he said. "It's inhumane."
In an op-ed written for The Washington Post, President Barack Obama cited Browder's "heartbreaking" case to argue for a ban on the use of solitary confinement for juvenile and low-level offenders in federal prisons.
The Spike series comes at a time when America's prisons are under scrutiny. The harsh prison sentences in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 have been debated in the presidential campaign, and a new documentary by Ava DuVernay, "The 13th," delves into mass incarceration and its deep, historical roots in America.
Jay Z would not be drawn into picking a side in the current presidential race on the topic of prison reform, saying "it's not a political issue. It's a human issue. It's a story of compassion and empathy." (He did indicate some skepticism at the use of police body cameras, saying "having a camera on someone creates more distrust.")
Jay Z said he came across Browder's story in an article in the New Yorker magazine and reached out to the young man, eventually meeting him. "I just wanted to give him words of encouragement," Jay Z said. He wanted to tell him "I'm proud of him for making it through."
The rapper, whose real name is Shawn Carter, later brought the Browder project to Weinstein, who said he wasn't familiar with the case. "I'm going to be honest. I didn't even know who Kalief was until Shawn showed us footage and talked to us about the project," Weinstein said. "Now I want to make sure everybody knows."
The series is directed by Jenner Furst, who wouldn't explain how he obtained Browder's video interrogation by police. It will be the first to emerge from a new deal between the rapper and The Weinstein Company to produce TV shows and movies. Also on the agenda is a film about comedian Richard Pryor, directed by Lee Daniels.