Seven prisoners locked up in an unnamed South Carolina penitentiary filmed a rap music video in their cells in March of 2014. The video, taken by a contraband cell phone’s camera, was uploaded onto WorldStarHipHop, an entertainment and news media website that specializes in videos self-uploaded by viewers.Last week, they were punished collectively for the video with almost 20 years of solitary confinement.
The total punishment held by the seven men is 7,150 days, or 19.75 years, in solitary confinement, a punishment that is being challenged by many as violating the 8th Amendment of the US Constitution under the “cruel and unusual punishment” phrase. Five men were sentenced with 180 days, another prisoner received 270 days, and the last received 360 days in “disciplinary detention”. This punishment also includes losses or privileges such as visitation rights, access to phones and the canteen, and “good time” gained for orderly behavior. These men were originally incriminated due to armed robbery, burglary, and voluntary manslaughter.
The almost six minute video includes a rap song entitled “I’m On”, which features an entirely acapella beat and harmonies. There are two lead rappers, both with gruff and hardened voices but with surprisingly intricate lyrics and ever changing cadences that adds to the overall song. The beat itself was made by an inmate beating on the walls with his hands and with what sounds like a pen. Another prisoner is heard providing constant background vocals that take the place of an electronic sample. Every prisoner shouts during the chorus in synchrony, illustrating the practice and talent among the group. Even the cameraman brings skills to the table, panning the jail cell at times to encompass the entire perspective of life behind bars as well as adding dramatic angles to emphasize certain lines and metaphors. It’s quite an impressive choreography in its own right, when one realizes this is all shot in one take.The hype and energy of the entire group is also impressive, especially due to the fact that at any time a security officer or fellow inmate could hear them and break up the song. In fact, how anyone did not hear them recording their song is suspicious, perhaps speaking to the massive understaffing and corruption of prison officials nationwide.
When first reported in May 2014, prison spokesperson Stephanie Givens told media outlets that they had identified some of the inmates involved, but were working on finding out the rest of the culprits. Once all identified, the prisoners were charged with “creating or assisting with a social media site”. South Carolina prisoners are not allowed access or use of cell phones and the internet. Access to social media is considered especially dangerous due to an inmate’s ability to communicate with the outside world. Bryan Stirling, director of the SCDC (South Carolina Department of Corrections), points to a South Carolina corrections officer shot and killed in his home through a contract killing ordered on the inside by a contraband cellphone.
In fact, South Carolina treats “creating or assisting with a social media site” as a Level One offense, a category usually reserved for violent infractions. It’s punishable with solitary confinement and the withholding of most privileges ordinary prisoners have access to. The kicker is that for each day an inmate uses social media, it counts as a separate infraction. While prison policy state that 60 days is the longest term that can sentenced in solitary confinement per infraction, the accrual of multiple infractions can result in an absurd amount of time spend in isolation. In October 2013, Tyheem Henry received 13,680 days (37.5 years) in solitary as well as 74 years of privileges taken away for accessing social media. He posted a total of 38 posts to Facebook. The average time in solitary confinement sentenced to inmates for violating social media policy was 517 days. That’s a little less than a year and a half for posting to social media.
The South Carolina prison remains adamant that the prisoners’ sentences are not to punish for their artistic efforts, but rather the introduction of a contraband device, as well as uploading the video to social media sites. Spokesperson Givens also stresses the fact that the inmates are documented gang members and a “continued threat to society”.
Regardless, issuing excessive amounts of solitary confinement for the uploading of a music video is detrimental to the whole situation. It drains funds from the prison by holding them in high security, adds to the growing list of inmates waiting for a cell to open up in isolation, and practically eliminates any rehabilitation efforts towards these prisoners. Holding a person in isolation has been proven time and time again to be extremely harmful to the human psyche as well as the body. The person sentenced to isolation will never be the same person once released. For a crime as petty as a music video, there’s no point to offer such a strict and harmful punishment. This is a lose-lose situation for all parties involved.