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Simone Missick and a Sing Sing Prisoner Talk All Rise, TV Judges, and Criminal Justice

Photo: Arturo Holmes/Getty Images

After I was sent away for murder and selling drugs 18 years ago, one of my old cronies from Hell’s Kitchen moved out to Los Angeles, got sober, and became a family man and a Teamster. As a Teamster, he typically works in Hollywood transporting sets and props and sometimes even the stars. A few months ago, I called him as he was driving Simone Missick to the set of the CBS show All Rise, where she plays Judge Lola Carmichael. “Wouldn’t it be a trip,” I asked him, “If I interviewed Judge Lola from the slammer?” He asked Missick if she’d talk to his buddy in Sing Sing who became a journalist. Sure, she said, she was down to talk!

And so the following is an edited excerpt from a recent conversation I had with Simone Missick on my new podcast This Is a Collect Call from Sing Sing. Missick shares her personal investment in the Judge Lola character and discusses the issues — immigration, race, PTSD, plea bargaining — that the show covers. Missick channels her own concerns about inequality and racism in our criminal justice system and shares intimate details of her life.

I, too, share some of the experiences I’ve had with judges — my privilege, my second chances, my shame — and how it’s too bad that they tend to see us defendants at our worst. What if judges had the ability to take a second look? We talk about the conflict that comes with the tough decisions that activist judges like Lola Carmichael have to make.

When I watch All Rise, I feel like there’s a lot of Simone Missick in Judge Lola. From what I’ve read, you grew up in Detroit, you went to Howard, you seem to have this social-justice conscience.

Lola is definitely the kind of judge I would want to be. I come from a very active family politically, especially around union organizing. My brother works for the head of the Nurses Union now, but for years he worked for SEIU, and I interned for SEIU. It was always this idea in our household about looking out for the little person and people who are being trampled by a system, not just within the justice system but within housing discrimination and improperly federally funded schools and health disparities.

I think I would have been on the other side of that fight as a public defender, thinking that would be the best way to help people. What is so interesting about Lola, which I never knew until this show, is that as a deputy district attorney, she is more empowered to help those being misused by the system. She has the power to determine who gets charged and with what, which is something that a public defender doesn’t have.

The show informs audiences of the issues that we face in the criminal justice system. In one episode, when you’re talking to Luke, the bailiff who wants to be a lawyer, you tell him to become a prosecutor because the DA sets the terms. To quote Lola, “The DA sets the terms of who gets charged.” Can you unpack this message for the audience a bit?

District attorneys are people who determine, as Lola says, the rules of the fight. They determine who gets charged and with what. It is her hope that if she can bring in another person of color like Luke — who comes from the other side of the legal system — if she can put another black person into that office to have that same sense of thoughtfulness and care and understanding about what can sometimes lead people to do the things that they do, and not just rubber stamp people’s lives with harsh sentences, then a difference can be made.

Another episode that stands out to me is when Judge Lola is lenient on a guy and it blows up in her face. It’s the one where she discounts this guy’s sentence, and then he goes out and does something horrible. Judge Lola is left with this moral grappling. Can you tell us about working on that episode?

Yeah, so a young man was accused of stealing a car. The mother of his girlfriend was adamant: “You need to lock this young man up. He’s stolen from me, he’s going to steal again.” Lola’s looking at this person — this is his first offense — and she’s like, “I’m not going to charge him with the full weight of what could possibly happen.” Sadly, he goes out not more than two days later, steals a car, goes on a high-speed chase, gets into an accident, and dies. This man’s girlfriend is left without a partner, his daughter is left without a father, and all eyes are on Lola. Lola ends up being brought up on charges on whether or not she’s fit to be a judge, and this is one of the cases that they use to argue against her.

There’s this really lovely scene between myself and Paul McCrane — who’s also a director on the show, but he plays a very conservative judge, as well — and he says, “We never know, and it is not your job to know. All you can do is what you can do.” For Lola, that can’t change. She can’t look at every defendant and say, “Well, are you going to disappoint me like that other person disappointed me, or is this going to blow up in my face?” That is what every judge grapples with: What is the right decision for this person? You might think that a person in front of you can change, and then you have to deal with those consequences.

It made me think of a lot of things, that episode. Back in 2000, about a year or so before I wound up killing a man, I was caught with a .45 on my waist. The lawyer knew the judge and said, “This kid needs a shot.” It was my second gun charge, I had done a year already on Rikers Island, so I probably didn’t deserve that shot, but I got that shot. She gave me a drug program, and I blew it. I ran from the drug program, I rekindled my drug empire, and I wound up killing a man. And so, part of me is like, Wow, I wish I had a Judge Lola. Then it’s like, but you did. If I was honest with myself, I did have a Judge Lola, she gave me a chance, and I blew it.

I think that it is complicated. There is an idea about how much juvenile courts actually help and rehabilitate, so it’s interesting that you say you spent time in juvie when you were younger. I question what might have happened if your first experience within the court system was not to send you to a facility. How many kids’ lives are changed and irreparably damaged by being put in, essentially, jail? We hear people all the time talk about how juvenile facilities are way worse than adult facilities when it comes to helping them to reform, helping them to figure out the tools that they need to not come back. All of that deserves to be discussed and examined by us as a society. How much of it is a choice, and how much of the way that we handle human beings puts them on a path to offend and reoffend and reoffend?

I recently spoke to Mark Mauer, the head of The Sentencing Project, and he’s proposing a 20-year cap for prison sentences in America. He’s suggesting a second look, like, “Okay, this guy got the message. What has he done with his life? If they let him out, would he be a law-abiding citizen?” It’s close to $70,000 to keep guys like me in prison. In Sing Sing, we have guys walking around with master’s degrees. They’re much different men than the broken young men, and oftentimes teenagers, they were when they came to prison. I would love to see Judge Lola looking at guys and gals that would come before a second-look panel. I think it’d be an interesting show.

I would love to see that, too. What you said about how much it costs to keep a person in prison, our system is just so broken. The amount of money it costs to keep a person in prison versus the amount of money that we spend per child in school is so drastically different. We do not give people in this country that are not wealthy the best opportunity to succeed. Every human being has a choice to make, but sometimes it’s a lot harder to make those choices if you don’t have anything around you that looks like hope, that looks like opportunity, that is that one person — that Judge Lola or that teacher — who sees you and sees your potential and says, “You have a gift inside of you, and I don’t know what that gift is, and you might not know what that gift is, but it’s not doing this. It’s not going down that path.”

We basically say, “If you go to prison, you’re useless,” in this country, so the fact that you’ve been able to find your gift for the world and expose what life is like in prison and be that lifeline for us outside who forget that each and everyday people’s lives are being affected by this is important. I thank you for finding that journey along the way.

Thank you, Simone. To lighten it up a bit, what’s up with the DA Mark? I know some All Rise fans are thinking, Is this more than a friendship? What’s the deal with that relationship?

What do we have in store? It’s the nature of network television that you wanna see some drama or you wanna see something sexy and illicit, but I value the fact that we are showing a man and a woman who are best friends. She’s black, he’s white, and what I love about the two of them is that they challenge each other in a way that other people don’t. It doesn’t have the messiness of, “And now they’re hooking up,” but who knows what’ll happen if the show is on the air for another seven seasons? [Laughs.]

Personally, I don’t think Mark can handle Lola, but that’s another story.

[Laughs] I’m gonna have to agree. I don’t think he could either, but that’s just me.

John J. Lennon is serving 28 years to life in Sing Sing Correctional Facility. He is a contributing editor at Esquire and a contributing writer for The Marshall Project. He also hosts the podcast This Is a Collect Call from Sing Sing. You can follow his work at @johnjlennon1 on Twitter.

Simone Missick and a Sing Sing Prisoner Talk All Rise