Sixteen months have passed, and James Brown is still a prisoner.
On Dec. 15, 1988, Soul Brother No. 1 became inmate No. 155413 and has since been required to spend his days behind bars in the minimum security State Park (S.C.) Correctional Institute.
But on Wednesday, Brown began participating in a county work-release program that will place him back out in the community, acting as a spokesman for the Aiken and Barnwell Counties Community Action Commission. Under the terms of the release agreement, Brown must return each night after work to the Lower Savannah Work Center, a minimum security facility in the town of Aiken. His belongings were transferred there last week.
"Mr. Brown is not being freed," explained Francis X. Archibald, Director of Public Affairs for the South Carolina Department of Corrections in a telephone interview. "He is just moving from one phase of incarceration to another."
If Brown does well during this first phase of work release, Archibald said that the 56-year-old soul singer may qualify to become eligible for extended work release by July. In extended work release, Brown would continue working for the county, but would be allowed to live at an approved residence within the community.
In a telephone interview Wednesday from the Aiken and Barnwell Counties Community Action Commission, the imprisoned entertainer sounded upbeat and renewed.
"I feel like Moses did when he led the children out of Pharaoh's land, like one of the disciples. I love this job and I'm just trying to do the right thing," Brown said.
"My job is to provide help where help is needed. I'll be giving speeches and working with the poor and less fortunate. Maybe if people see the good that we're doing in this beautiful city, it will send a message to the world."
The community action agency was one of several prospective employers who offered Brown a job. According to his lawyer, Richard Crane, Brown chose his current minimum-wage position over a teaching job at Benedict College, a musical consultant gig on Arsenio Hall's television show and several openings at Aiken radio stations.
His daily activities will include community appearances designed to draw public attention to the problems of the poor and homeless in and around Aiken. He will also give talks at local high schools intended to encourage underprivileged young people to stay off drugs and in school, Crane said.
"Many are in need of help. Poor people out on the street, kids on drugs, pregnant teens, the elderly," Brown said with fervor. "We need to start paying attention to the condition of these people, figure out how they got in that position in the first place, and help them to help themselves. This is not just about civil rights anymore, it's about human rights."
Brown said he was especially looking forward to participating in an upcoming benefit being staged at the University of South Carolina to generate income for the Aiken and Barnwell Communities Action Commission. Scheduled to take place on May 3, in celebration of Brown's 57th birthday, the event will feature performances by Brown, Ray Charles, Gladys Knight, Teddy Riley, Little Richard, Heavy D. & the Boyz, Jermaine Jackson and Full Force.
He also voiced enthusiasm over a documentary being prepared about his life by the Washington-based film production company On the Potomac. Thomas Hart, the firm's president, described the 60-minute production as a retrospective of Brown's career, with interview excerpts, footage from his incarceration and concert performances from the May 3 tribute. Hart said negotiations were under way with three networks to air the special in late May or early June.
Brown is has long been one of the most influential artists in pop music. He not only invented the genres of funk and rap, his syncopated imprint also helped define the pulse of rock, fusion and world music.
Often referred to as "the Godfather of Soul" and "the Hardest Working Man in Show Business," Brown is also legendary for his intense stage performances. Over the course of his career, he has visited with Presidents, congressmen, foreign dignitaries and was called in to quell rioting in Augusta, Boston and Washington following the assassination of Martin Luther King.
Brown's imprisonment came on the heels of a spree of allegedly violent episodes and erratic behavior. In the summer of 1988, the Augusta, Ga., resident was placed on probation after being convicted of assault and battery involving a police officer. Other violations that year included carrying a pistol and PCP possession, to which Brown pleaded no contest. In the fall, he checked into a drug rehabilitation program for four days.
On Sept. 24, 1988, Brown, armed with a shotgun, entered an insurance seminar in Augusta. Participants at the seminar notified local authorities, setting into motion a high-speed car chase in the Augusta area and across the state line in South Carolina.