The click of the jail doors is what sticks with Mark Cheatham — and he’s not even a prisoner. “When I leave here at night, I sleep differently,” he said of his twice-monthly visits to conduct Bible study at the Atlantic County Justice Facility. The men there — and the lives they abandon on the outside — are what spawned his latest collaboration with partner Jomo Lyles-Belton.
“Who gonna take care my kids and my wife?” Lyles-Belton repeatedly asks in “25 to Life.”
It’s the latest video from the two men, along with fellow Atlantic City firefighter Kahlif Thornton and co-producer Tyrone Turner, under their companies Focus IN Productions and Lyles-Belton Entertainment.
The video follows “inmate” Lyles-Belton — in orange prison jumpsuit, handcuffs and shackles — through the Atlantic County Criminal Courthouse in Mays Landing: taken from a prison van, led through the back hallways, a courtroom, where he’s given “25 to life.”
Showing the reality of jail was key, the group agrees.
There’s the caged elevator. The Plexiglas that separates inmates from visitors. And the writing on the walls: Names, dates, gang affiliations are a way for a defendant to leave his mark.
“We’re forever repainting the cells,” Atlantic County Sheriff Frank Balles said. “They’re forever scratching their message into the walls. There’s always a message to tell when you’re in jail.
“There are many messages under those paint layers,” he added.
“It was very important for us to actually have it here,” Thornton said, sitting in a room in the courthouse. “This is where you are going to end up at if that’s the route you’re going on.”
They tried several state institutions first. Each time, they were turned down.
“Then, you said ‘yes,’” Thornton told Balles.
When the video first started getting hits on YouTube, some questioned that decision. But Balles said everything was done in a few hours, and the free access was allowed after the courthouse was closed. There were no inmates inside the facility, and the face and name/badge of an officer used in the video is blurred.
The men point to the U.S. Department of Justice statistics shown in the video: While only about 13 percent of the U.S. population is African American, more than 40 percent of incarcerated men are black.
“It’s a reality for many of my peers,” said Lyles-Belton, 37, who grew up in the city’s Bungalow Park. “Some are in jail. Some are just getting out of jail. Some are dead.”
Cheatham, 49, grew up on North Maryland Avenue’s 800 block, better known as Back Maryland — one of Atlantic City’s most troubled areas. He knows people who went left when he went right. Like many growing up there today, he didn’t have a father around.
“My mother ruled with an iron fist,” he said. “Respect was No. 1. She taught me how to become a man.”
They’re hoping they can give that same message through the music. They will be ordering about 100 copies and will make some available free to local schools and organizations that work with youth, such as the Boys and Girls Club.
“I encourage people to look at the film,” said Perry Mays, president of the Coalition for a Safe Community. “I think it gives you the reality what it’s like in jail, and an idea of how to better equip yourself and stay out of the institutions.”
The video has surpassed 3,000 hits on YouTube, mainly through promotion on social media.
“We just want his voice to be heard,” Cheatham said. “We pray that it resonates in the kids’ lives and hearts.”
And that they don’t have to hear the click of a jail door.
“Listening to those doors shut,” Cheatham said, “it hits you.”
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