“16 BARS”, directed by Sam Bathrick, gives us a rare look at the human stories and songs that are locked away with prisoners in America’s jails and prisons. The documentary explores a unique rehabilitation effort in a Virginia jail that encourages inmates to write and record their own original music. We go into the jail’s makeshift recording studio and meet four men collaborating to produce an album with Grammy-winner Todd Speech Thomas of Arrested Development. As we watch the creative process, these incarcerated artists must face the traumas of their past, and music becomes one key to unlocking a new chapter in their lives.
Two-time Grammy-winner Speech Thomas is considered to be one of the godfathers of conscious hip-hop. His band Arrested Development’s 1993 debut album “3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life of…” went quadruple platinum and established an Afrocentric alternative to gangster rap that was commercially viable. Some 25 years later, Speech continues to tour with his band and seek out opportunities to use music to address issues of social and racial justice. In 2017, he went to the Richmond City Jail, where he conducted music workshops with inmates. He wanted to shed light on the complex issues in our criminal justice system by bringing the voices and stories of incarcerated people to a larger audience.
The jail in Richmond Virginia houses those awaiting trials and sentencing. It seems to have a revolving door of inmates throughout a year. “16 Bars” concentrates on the lives of four inmates there.
Many jails house those who are becoming all too familiar and through investigating this reality, “16 Bars” shows us why. We look at the stories and themes that have seen black men thrown into incarceration for severe drug abuse. Speech came to Richmond jail after hearing about a rehabilitation program implemented there that gives the inmates access to a recording studio. He begins recording and producing their lyrics into songs which sees the men express themselves in ways they would have been otherwise incapable of. After allowing the prisoners a brief embrace with their inner turmoil, the men then share how they turn from the past to embrace the future. Some find it easy to live on the outside after being locked up. Others see no other way of living other than how they lived before. When one faces abuse as a child, it is almost impossible to control oneself no matter how hard it is to so and the odds are already stacked. That’s what the men we meet here deal with. In leaving, they back to the circumstances that saw them become who they were when arrested, and they re-offend.
The program attempts to change that. It’s a process of strengthening will and expression so that they can transcend their past sins. The men we follow genuinely believe in it for a time.
Repeat offender Garland is hanging on for one final chance to be with his girlfriend and turn his life around. De’vonte, the youngest of the four followed his mother and became a dealer. Anthony saw his mother abused and then watched her lie to the police about how it happened. He faced abuse himself not long after and is a violent man as a result; he relapses more than any of them. Teddy, who when we meet him first has been out for four days. He saw a man killed right in front of him in his youth while trying to buy drugs. At 15 he developed an addiction to crack and pain pills so that he could deal with the things he’d seen. Garland may be the only real criminal, and he takes legitimate steps to reform. The other three didn’t choose crime; they had it thrust upon them by circumstances out of their control.
They have broken the law and each of them admit that they have endangered other people’s lives. Speech believes in redemption, “with everybody, with anybody, no matter what they’ve done”.
Bonus features include: Three or four music videos, for ‘Inspire,’ ‘Lost One’, ‘Freedom Wind’ and ‘Lost One’.