William Underwood accomplished much in his life. He jumpstarted the careers of many notable musicians of the 80s and promoted the careers of artists as varied as Johnny Gill, Ray Charles, and Michael Jackson. Music brings so much joy to his life: from R&B to samba, jazz to rap, Nina Simone to SZA, Underwood loves this art as deep as he loves his four children and three grandchildren. However, in 1988, 34 year old Underwood was arrested and convicted of his first felony offense. Due to harsher penalties under the failed “War on Drugs,” he was sentenced to life without parole plus 20 years on drug conspiracy charges.
Underwood’s battle with the justice system has been fraught. Underwood was part of the first round of convictions made under the newly enacted federal sentencing guidelines. Laws have significantly changed over the three decades since Underwood was sentenced. He was sentenced at a time when federal sentencing guidelines were mandatory. Today, the federal sentencing guidelines are advisory and Supreme Court case law requires sentencing judges to consider individualized factors.
His family’s initial goal was to make their father’s case known to then-President Barack Obama, in a bid for clemency to be granted. William’s children continue to fight for their father’s freedom. His daughter, Ebony Underwood, and her three siblings created #HopeForFathersDay, a documentary about the children of incarcerated parents.
Despite the prison walls between them, Underwood’s children work hard to sustain a meaningful relationship. He writes, “I can understand, can taste and feel the absence that I have left in their mouths, and that palpitates on their hearts.”
Underwood wants to be remembered as a eudaemonist: someone who believes that one’s moral value is based on their actions, righteous acts create happy people and communities. He mentors and encourages the younger men in prison to stay out of trouble and, when released, to continue down the right path. Underwood has displayed remarkable conduct during his entire time incarcerated. He is described as a model prisoner, with zero disciplinary infractions in 30 years. Unfortunately, he was overlooked by the previous administration and remains in prison.
If he were released, William would go “straight to my daughter’s home, because my children have been there for me absolutely and unequivocally.” Ebony and her siblings persist in advocating for William’s release in hopes that after 30 years, when they finally see their father out of prison, they can celebrate their own Father’s Day.