The war on drugs and subsequent reforms have changed the way we fill our prisons over the last few decades

16 Bars. One Jail. One Recording Studio

When you think of someone serving time, you may not think of the person behind the crime. “16 Bars” is a documentary that brings awareness to the criminal justice system and gives insight into what's happening in prisons across the country.

In the film, one man opened up his heart to inspire four prisoners with a glimpse of freedom. 

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Atlanta-based, Grammy Award winner, Todd "Speech" Thomas of the hip hop group Arrested Development, stars in the film where he gives a sense of hope to four incarcerated men in Richmond, Virginia. Inspired by a CNN television special, Thomas brings a recording studio inside the prison to record the four men who are in a special rehabilitation program. 

The inmates collectively are dealing with mental illness, drug addiction, physical and mental abuse from their childhoods, as well as a past filled with crime and the desire to be free and get on the right path. 

"I felt my freedom leaving, being in the jail and felt a little scared because I had never met the men before and didn't know what to expect," said Thomas. "There was fear and excitement." 

Thomas produced the music, learned about the men, and reflected on his own personal journey through the men's stories. When he started producing during the recordings, hearing the musicality, the intensity, and the passion, he was excited. With his help, the four men wrote and recorded their own original music to produce a studio album. The music tells the men's stories, struggles and their pain. 

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"Everything was on the spot," said Thomas. "We were experimenting a lot. I wanted to give my input, but as a producer I also strive to stay out of the way." 

A two-week process, Thomas said one of the benefits of shooting the film for longs hours at a time was that he forgot the cameras were on. He made friendships with the four men, but the reality is that Thomas got to leave the prison every day after shooting.

"I knew the humanity, I didn't know the level of people striving to change the demons that they're facing, and how much they are striving to do it," said Thomas. "I gained respect for the journey and have a deeper level of understanding." 

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Thomas said the film is meant to show people what is going on and to get people to start talking about how they can help make a difference. 

"A lot of them didn't have the opportunity to start out fresh. These men are behind bars, but their voices have to be heard," said Thomas. "I was there to create music for the inmates to record things all inmates need to say and trying to break the cycle of crime."

“16 Bars” is scheduled to be released in theaters nationwide on November 8th, along with the studio album. Proceeds from the album will go toward helping the men. For more information or to donate, visit 16barsthefilm.com.

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