Isaac Wright Jr. hadn’t fully processed his time in prison. Then he saw it on TV
Since it premiered in February, millions of viewers have checked out “For Life,” ABC’s drama about a wrongfully accused man who receives a life sentence and becomes a lawyer while incarcerated, fighting in court for his fellow inmates while also trying to clear his name.
Many were likely drawn by the show’s connection to Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, who is one of the executive producers.
But for one of those viewers, “For Life” has been an emotional journey, both life-changing and healing. He is Isaac Wright Jr., the series’ real-life inspiration.
“It’s obviously an incredible feeling to come from where I started to where I am right now,” Wright, who works as an attorney in New Jersey, said in a recent phone interview. “Having this show has been a very enlightening and therapeutic process. It allows me to watch what I went through in the third person. That has helped me a lot because I never really had a lot of time to process my experience. I was spending all my time fighting it. It’s been a real roller coaster. “
“For Life” stars Nicholas Pinnock (“Counterpart”) as Aaron Wallace, a nightclub owner who is sentenced to life in prison after being wrongfully accused of being a drug kingpin. Determined to overturn his conviction, he fights and eventually gets a license to practice law. He also becomes an advocate for other inmates in their legal battles.
The series takes several departures from Wright’s true story, including the premise that he was a lawyer while in prison. In fact, he was a paralegal with the prison paralegal organization the Inmate Legal Assn. In that capacity, he represented prisoners on infractions committed within the prison yards and also prepared supplemental legal briefs on the appeals of their criminal cases.
Wright was a music producer in 1989 when he was charged with running a cocaine trafficking network in New Jersey. Studying law while in his cell, Wright represented himself at trial and, after his conviction in 1991, on appeal. He ultimately prevailed and was released in 1996, with the convictions ultimately vacated and the case finally dismissed.
Wright went on to pursue a law degree, passing the New Jersey bar exam in 2008. But he met another obstacle when the bar’s Committee on Character held up his bar admission for nine years while they investigated him. He was finally admitted to the bar in 2017.
Executive producer Hank Steinberg, who created “For Life,” was immediately intrigued when he first heard about Wright from Jackson and fellow executive producers Allison Greenspan and Doug Robinson, but knew he would have to change and condense the true narrative for dramatic purposes. He was determined to maintain the essence of Wright’s story.
“It’s David against Goliath, for starters,” Steinberg, whose prior credits include HBO’s Mickey Mantle/Roger Maris docudrama “61*,” FX’s “RFK” and the series “Without A Trace,” said in a phone interview. “His fortitude, determination, savvy and smarts to survive all those years in prison, his will and grit, is a great story. It’s a personal tale where we can also show the flaws in the justice system and try to bring about change.”
Having Wright as an executive producer and consultant was essential, he said: “I’ve had a beautiful relationship and dynamic with Isaac. He’s incredibly nimble and limber in helping us capture the spirit of his story,”
The British-born Pinnock was equally impressed when he met Wright at the first table read for the project.
“I was completely overwhelmed by his case,” said the actor. “I saw him across the room and we kind of waved at each other. Then I dragged him away into this other room and just kept asking him things. After that, I felt like there were some things that we needed to add.”
Pinnock’s challenge, he said, was capturing the many complexities of Wright’s dilemma and narrowing the elements down into a single persona.
“There’s really five different versions of Isaac,” he said. “There’s the prisoner. There’s the prisoner representative in the legal cases. There’s the lawyer in court. There’s the family man. And then there’s the character that we see in flashback before all the trouble started. I wanted them to have their own unique voice but yet be recognizable in a single person.”
Wright said that although there are clear differences between him and his fictional counterpart, he is still moved by Pinnock’s interpretation.
“I look at Aaron’s struggle and see my own struggle,” he said. “I’m speaking for everyone who has ever been incarcerated, especially those who are innocent or have been overly charged.”
The connection between the two men was so strong that Wright found himself caught off-guard by Pinnock’s portrayal.
“There were things going on inside of me that I didn’t display, but Nicholas found without it being over the top,” he said. “I couldn’t always show the emotion that was going [on]. What people can’t see, they can’t understand.”
Another key difference is the family story in “For Life,” which is also a key element of the series. Aaron still has a loving relationship with his estranged wife, Marie (Joy Bryant), a nurse who was less than pleased when Aaron, clinging to his innocence, rejected the plea deal that would have lessened his jail time. She has asked for a divorce and has become romantically involved with Darius (Brandon J. Dirden), Aaron’s best friend.
Further complicating the situation is Jasmine (Tyla Harris), Aaron and Marie’s teen daughter, who announces she is pregnant. The distraught Jasmine keeps telling her father that he must find a way to be part of his grandchild’s life.
Wright said he did have an estranged wife and daughter during his imprisonment, but that his relationship with his former spouse was “much, much worse” than the dynamic in “For Life.”
Although he realizes that the series’ primary mission is to entertain, he is excited that it has also had real-life impact.
“It has given me a brighter outlook [on] the justice system,” Wright said. “I know the air of hopelessness and what people in prison go through. I think the show is a real catalyst for change in the system.”
When: 10 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-14-DLV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and violence)
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