Jabir Pope Shares His Story of Incarceration, Liberation and Turning Freedom Into Purpose

By Brigitte McIndoe for WORLD

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In 1984, Jabir Pope was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Thirty-eight years later, at 71 years old, the Boston native returned home and now spends his days trying to make up for lost time with his daughter and grandson. Pope recently joined Stories from the Stage to share his story of redemption, strength and love:

Before taking the stage, Pope sat down for an interview to talk about his life during and after his incarceration.

“When we come out, we have to acclimate ourselves to the world as it is. And it's changed,” Pope said. “I mean, I've been gone almost four decades – quite a bit of change.”

Read more from Pope below.

Your relationship with your mother plays a major part in your story. What else can you share about your life growing up?

Jabir Pope: I had good parents – they had very limited education, but they always kept their dignity intact and strove to make us be the best that we could be. We never saw Christmas without toys, never saw Thanksgiving without a feast, never saw a first day of school without new clothes. My parents have always been my first heroes.

I'm a child of the ‘50s, teen of the ‘60s and a warrior of the ‘70s. I think the ‘70s were probably my favorite time. That's when we came up in the midst of the Black Panthers and other organizations that were trying to empower us in our community and wanted us to live our best selves. It was an exciting time for me growing up, even though there were a lot of volatile things going on – there were riots because of injustices that have plagued us for my entire existence, and long before I came along. It’s always been a struggle in that respect.

What helped you survive each day of the 38 years of incarceration?

JP: I've been asked that question a lot. Usually the way I answer it is that I liken it to fatherhood. When I went to prison, my then-fiancée was four months along with my daughter. I never get to stop being a father, and I did the best that I could from prison to be the best father I could. For me, that was just geography. I would save up, for example, to make sure that I could send her some money in a birthday card. I never wanted to miss a birthday. I never wanted to miss those important times, because I didn't get to take a day off from being Daddy.

It was the same thing with the struggle: I was sentenced to die in prison and I didn't get to take a break from that. The alternative was to lay down and die, and I was not prepared to do that. I was always focused and fighting for my freedom to get back to my baby and loved ones.

Now that you’ve returned home, what hope do you have for change for others facing situations similar to yours?

JP: The system tends to say one thing and mean another, and there should be one standard for all. The fact that an individual will have a couple of dollars more than I do should not provide him with more justice than me. I spent 38 years in prison – I didn't meet any millionaires in prison. They don't go to prison; only poor people go to prison. For someone to suggest to me that justice is balanced – it's just simply not true. I would change it from top to bottom to make sure that people receive justice instead of favoritism and injustice.

Those of us that have been successful in winning our freedom, we have formed a little community of our own out here. We try to reach back and assist those that we can to create that bridge and to incentivize them, to give them hope, to keep fighting the fight.

What does storytelling, in any form, mean to you?

JP: While inside, I spent a lot of time involved in music, which is kind of my first love. We did a lot of writing, but it was conscientious music. We didn't want to just write music for the sake of writing music; we wanted to impact the lives of people inside as well as outside.

I've always been intrigued with words. I like the way that people use words. I came up in the ‘70s, so there was Malcolm X, Dr. King and a host of others that were good orators. And I am an entertainer. We spent most of our time singing when I was inside, and I've done poetry and things like that over the years. I have found, in my experience, that a good collection of words can impact people in very, very positive ways. 

A lot of people are not going to get a chance to [tell their story]. I try to be a voice for those that can't be a voice for themselves at the moment.

Watch Jabir’s story and more on In an Instant, now streaming online and on the PBS app. Watch more stories like Jabir’s in our Liberated Lives film collection.

Stellar Story Company curates and coaches talent for Stories from the Stage. Stellar first connected with Jabir Pope through their work with the New England Innocence Project. Stellar supports exonerees in advancing their storytelling skills.

Follow @storiesfromthestage on Instagram and subscribe to our YouTube channel for more stories and behind-the-scenes interviews.

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Liberated Lives

Liberated Lives, a compelling curated collection from WORLD, showcases stories of individuals transitioning from incarceration to reintegration. Highlighting resilience, transformation, and the journey toward redemption, it's more than a series of documentaries – it's a movement that amplifies the voices of those often marginalized and encourages viewers to recognize their role in our democracy.