Editor’s note: Today’s guest post comes from John Legend, artist, producer and activist; and Ty Stiklorius, veteran music manager, CEO of Friends at Work, Producer and Activist
At the age of 17, Jarrett Harper was sentenced to life in prison without parole. His crime was killing the man who had sexually abused him and his brother over a number of years. But he was not seen as a desperate child victim trying to stop the abuse he and his brother were enduring. Instead, he was sentenced as a child to die in prison.
We were honored to meet Jarrett during a visit to Lancaster Prison in 2015. When we met, Jarrett was 33 years old and had already served 16 years behind bars. During that time, Jarrett devoted himself to learning and healing. He reached out to others who were incarcerated with him, to mentor and give counsel to them. This young man, who had suffered so much and been through so much trauma, was dedicated to transforming himself and to finding hope.
Meeting Jarrett changed us. It reinvigorated our commitment to addressing how children are sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, the conditions of their confinement—and to Jarrett’s personal plea for freedom. We co-authored a letter to California Governor Jerry Brown petitioning for Jarrett’s sentence of life without parole to be reduced. In 2019, newly-elected Governor Gavin Newsom agreed with Governor Jerry Brown’s decision. Jarrett was finally released after serving 20 years.
Jarrett’s compelling voice is now part of Project Witness—created by theCampaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, YouTube and Google—which uses virtual reality to immerse the viewer in the experience of prison from a child’s point of view.
Project Witness launches today against the backdrop of the release of “Just Mercy,” a film that tells the story of acclaimed human rights advocate Bryan Stevenson and his struggle to challenge a broken criminal justice system. In his writing and speaking, Bryan always makes an abiding plea that we bear witness to the “places where there is despair.” He says: “If you are willing to get closer to people who are suffering, you will find the power to change the world.”
That has been so true for us. We have chosen to be proximate, to position ourselves in the places where justice has been denied, so that we might fight for a better world. We hope that Project Witness’s immersive experiences will extend the chance for many others to be proximate to the lived experiences of children behind bars.
We urge you to bear witness to the stories of being a child behind bars. And we hope you will join us in fighting for justice—for everyone.