Hyper-Individualism in 16 Bars and the Richmond City Jail

Will Roberts, University of Richmond Class of 2021, Fall 2020

Table of Contents: 


Section 1

Section 2

Section 3



“When we talk about choices, I have a hard time coping 

These judges and lawyers, man, ain’t none of them for ya 

These jails and prisons they built to destroy us 

They got me sitting in group talking ‘bout feelings and focus 

Missing my wife and kids, hoping nobody don’t notice 

The life I live ‘cause I made some bad choices” 

-Markie, Moomau [Choices]

Public knowledge of the music studio on the sixth floor of the Richmond city jail has largely been limited to its representation in the 2018 documentary 16 Bars and media coverage of the film. Jail administrators, journalists and critics, among others, have celebrated 16 Bars for documenting the music studio’s rehabilitative, humanizing and empowering effects. The film has been celebrated for bringing awareness to mass incarceration and for offering a vision of reform. In turn, the jail administration has been celebrated for its rehabilitation program and for supporting the documentary. 

Insofar as the film’s apparent humanization and empowerment of its characters is juxtaposed to the dehumanizing effects of carceral institutions, the documentary appears to be a protest against mass incarceration. Here, I consider how liberal discourses of rehabilitation and humanization, while seemingly opposed to mass incarceration, support the underlying assumptions and principles that help entrench mass incarceration. This isn’t to say that the producers of 16 Bars or the administrators of the jail’s rehabilitation program have deceitful or malign ends. I argue, rather, that 16 Bars’ fixation with individual choice and redemption diverts critical analysis from carceral institutions.

            Below, I provide background on the Richmond City Jail, its studio program and the 16 Bars documentary. Section One draws on media coverage of 16 Bars to show how the film’s narrative is fixated on individual choice and how its gaze aligns with the hyper-individualistic rhetoric of rehabilitation inside the jail. Section Two comments on the film makers’ desire to explain why the men it features are incarcerated. I argue that their explanation is inadequate because it doesn’t explore the themes in the men’s lyrics or offer a coherent account of the systemic and racialized context in which their stories take place. To conclude, I borrow from philosopher Lauren Berlant the term “cruel optimism” to argue that the emotional appeal of 16 Bars and the celebratory framing of rehabilitation are not actualy in opposition to mass incarceration. 

The jail’s R.E.A.L (Recovery from Everyday Addictive Lifestyles) “behavior modification” program was founded in 2016 by the jail’s former rehabilitation program director Dr. Sarah Scarborough and former Sheriff C.T Woody, Jr. Two years earlier, the city had opened the Richmond City Justice Center to replace the old city jail, which opened in 1964 and regularly held twice the number of people it was designed to hold. Because of overcrowding and no air conditioning, the death rate in the old jail between 2000 and 2007 was more than twice the rate of similar-sized jails across the U.S.[i]

Inmates in the old city jail began recording music and poetry in the jail’s education room in 2013. The room became known as “The Sanctuary.” Before being transferred to the Justice Center, one inmate recorded the track No Justice. On the track he states that the new Justice Center is supposed to be a “newly-thought up, high-tech form of incarceration,” a place where “you won’t feel the wind no more.” At the end of 2014, the year the Justice Center opened, Sheriff Woody lauded the facility’s “state-of-the-art technology,” describing it as “cutting edge,” “world class,” a facility that “can more holistically meet the needs of its correctional system.” 

By rebranding itself as the “Justice Center,” the city jail describes itself as a site from which justice is administered. Artists in the city jail have rapped about the jail’s new name: 

They’re calling it the Justice Center, and to everyone that don’t know yet, there won’t be no justice in it, it’ll be just us in it,” (No Justice[0:20]) Another artist put it this way: “Locked the fuck up, Richmond City Jail, or, should I say, the Justice Center. Fuck the police, niggas got cases pending,” 

(Justice Center, [Intro])

Another artist on the track Justice Center raps: “In the Justice Center there’s no justice.” The move to the Justice Center put an end to the Sanctuary community, and the recording gear was moved into a small room on the sixth floor of the Justice Center in which a maximum of five people can fit. [i]

Justice Center ‘locked the fuck up’

Justice Center ‘in the JC there’s no Justice’

16 Bars features four men — Tennyson “Teddy” Kane, De’vonte James, Anthony Jackson and Garland Carr – all incarcerated in the jail, with the exception of Teddy, who was a former inmate in the city jail and was asked to be featured in the film. The film documents the men as they record music inside the jail alongside Atlanta-based hip hop artist Todd “Speech” Thomas, who cofounded the band Arrested Development in 1987. Drawn to the jail by a 2015 CNN piece highlighting the jail’s father-daughter dance show, Speech recruited Resonant Pictures director Sam Bathrick to document his work with inmates. Speech spent ten days working inside the jail (and spent one night in a cell) and later brought the recordings to his home studio in Atlanta where he produced and compiled them into an album. 

Section 1


[i] McGraw, Andy. “Ethical Friction: Ethnomusicological Perspectives on Music in the Richmond City Jail.” In the Oxford Handbook on Applied Ethnomusicology. Edited by Beverley Diamond and Salwa Castelo-Branco. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2020. 

[i] Bowes, Mark. Three Inmates Die over 72-Hour Period at Richmond Jail. Richmond Times-Dispatch, July 16, 2015.