For Life

ABC’s For Life Isn’t Just a TV Series—It’s a Wakeup Call

By Zach Johnson

Incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit, Aaron Wallace (series lead Nichols Pinnock) is determined to prove his innocence in order to reunite with his family and reclaim the life that was stolen from him. To do so, Aaron becomes a lawyer, litigating cases for other inmates while also fighting to overturn his own life sentence. This is the premise of the new ABC drama series For Life, inspired by the life of Isaac Wright Jr., premiering February 11 at 10|9c.

The fictional serialized drama hails from creator Hank Steinberg and executive producers Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Doug Robinson, Alison Greenspan, and Wright Jr. For Jackson in particular, the series’ themes hit close to home. “I know more people who found themselves in situations where the logical result was to take the plea rather than to go to trial,” he says. “Maybe they couldn’t afford to actually fight or get the right representation. Maybe they were simply afraid to go to jail, so they kept stalling and stalling and stalling until they ended up in trial proceedings and were hung out to dry.”

For Life

Through Aaron’s ferocious struggle and complicated relationship with progressive prison warden Safiya Masry (Indira Varma), For Life will also examine the flaws and challenges in the penal and legal systems. “I’m personally interested in how much corruption there really is and how much of a shakeup there needs to be,” says Varma. “I think politics comes into it—and sometimes it shouldn’t. And race is a massive thing.”

“There are a lot of people in prison who don’t belong there,” adds Emmy® Award-winning actor Timothy Busfield. “There are a lot of people in prison only because the district attorney had to put somebody there, so they manufactured a case. My character, Henry Roswell, knows that—because he himself did that. Hopefully, this will awaken people to the fact that there are a lot of people who are now in prison and shouldn’t be.”

While it’s not a docu-series, For Life deals with real-world issues—issues Varma and her co-stars hope spark a broader discussion. “The people we want to affect and touch might not necessarily read about corruption in the penal system,” the actress explains. “But through entertainment we might be able to educate people and teach compassion.”

For Life

In addition to Busfield and Varma, the cast of For Life includes Joy Bryant as Marie Wallace, Mary Stuart Masterson as Anya Harrison, Boris McGiver as D.A. Maskins, Glenn Fleshler as Frank Foster, Dorian Missick as Jamal Bishop and Tyla Harris as Jasmine Wallace. Jackson has a recurring role as an “institutionalized” inmate, Cassius Dawkins. “He’s been incarcerated since he was 16 and never really got to begin his life,” he says. “He prides himself more on his reputation in jail than in the things he experienced before he got there. You get into the prison system and you’re around bad guys, then you start doing bad things, and then you just become so comfortable with it that it’s the new you.” He adds, “He’s almost the polar opposite of Isaac, who’s working so hard to get home.”

Being a part of For Life has caused even the actors themselves to reconsider how people behind bars are seen and treated. “If somebody is given a criminal record, they become a ‘criminal.’ But actually, they might be a father. They might be a lawyer—or have the potential to be a lawyer,” Varma says. “I think this reminds us that human beings are nuanced. Just because you have a criminal record, it doesn’t mean you’re not human.”

“Or,” as Busfield points out, “that you’re even a criminal.”