“It only takes a minute to get in here, and a lifetime to get out,” says Maxwell Melvin, 32, serving a life sentence in New Jersey for murdering his best friend. Maxwell’s first brush with the law came when he developed a taste for heroin at the age of 15. By 20 he was in jail-with no hope for getting out until the next century. For many, a life sentence would mean the end. For Melvin, it was something of a beginning. Since 1986, he’s worked with The
Lifer’s Group Juvenile Awareness Program, subject of the 1978 documentary Scared Straight. Melvin takes delinquents and high school and college students on prison tours.
“They think prison is a game,” says Melvin. “We give them the benefit of our experience.” That includes sharing the brutal details of prison life, including violence, AIDS, rape, and the lack of privacy.
In 1990, Melvin put the group’s message to rap and The Lifer’s Group rappers were born. In 1991 their video was nominated for a Grammy. “It’s nice to be recognized,” says Melvin, “but my biggest reward
is when parents call to say we’ve helped their child.”
More on Melvin’s prison accomplishment Jailhouse Rap
They call themselves the Lifer’s Group-a name redolent with the romantic portrait of prison life that permeates the work of many major rap stars. But the rappers of the Lifer’s Group really are lifers-23 inmates serving long stretches at New Jersey’s Rahway Prison. Last year incarcerated killer Maxwell Melvins persuaded Hollywood Basic Records to ante up $150,000 for an album of hip-hop and heartfelt confessions designed to deter youthful offenders. A short film shot on location, Lifers Group World Tour: Rahway Prison,
The video was nominated for a Grammy. Unable to wangle a furlough for the event, the Lifer’s watched from prison. They didn’t win but made a mark in history.