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Comedian Robert Hines Reflects on His Career in Jail in ‘Lockdown Detroit’

If you know Robert Hines, it’s likely from his performance as Toby Jones, the face and voice behind a series of viral advertisements including the standout “Jones’ Good Ass BBQ & Foot Massage” from 2009, which has racked up over 18 million views on YouTube. In another time, this character would’ve ended up in a real Super Bowl commercial. But Hines’s real story is much more compelling than this hybrid spa-restaurant.

Lockdown Detroit introduces us to the real Robert L. Hines: a loud, storytelling comedian, gifted singer, and former corrections officer at the Cook County Department of Corrections. Hines’s perspective is one that straddles the complications of being a Black man from the Englewood neighborhood in Chicago, who also worked in the infamous jail from 1994 to 2003. He’s likely the only former correctional officer who also appeared on the legendary comedy show ComicView, which Hines did in 1992, a year after starting his comedy career in Chicago. 

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Presented by Hannibal Buress’s Isola Man Media, Hines’ special is the first by the company since Buress released Miami Nights. Clocking in at just 23 minutes, it’s a brief but layered introduction to the 51-year-old comedian that is filled with stories that only he could tell.  

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Hines hopes his experience has an impact on the audience, aside from laughter. “I want you to understand that there’s no such thing as disposable humanity,” he said. He observed his colleagues and supervisors treating the inmates—some of whom were Hines’s friends and relatives—with a cruelty that contributed to his eventual departure. In the special, Hines recounts the dynamic with dynamism and humor. In conversation, he speaks in starker terms.

“I honestly felt like the people that were telling me what I should do to the people that were locked up, were lesser people than the people that were locked up,” Hines said. “It takes a lot of energy to protect people from the people who are supposed to be protecting them.”

Hines recalls inmates offering him breakfast, as they cooked sandwiches by burning milk cartons under a metal bench, which served as a makeshift griddle. Hines did not always bring his day job to the stage, but now his standup special focuses on it. 

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“I wasn’t proud of the job,” Hines told VICE. “I wasn’t proud of working as a corrections officer. So I never talked about it. It took me years to talk about it.” Initially, nobody in Hines’s family supported the idea of him pursuing standup comedy. “If you didn’t punch a clock, you didn’t do shit,” was the ruling principle. 

In the special, Hines’s performance is spliced with animations of interviews conducted with his former colleagues from the Cook County jail. They are not as over-the-top as the effects in Buress’s Miami Nights, but add a distinct layer not usually seen in comedy specials. These details were enabled by Buress, who encouraged Hines to think bigger when producing Lockdown Detroit. Hines wasn’t sure what was possible to include in his special, and was met with a simple response.

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“Tell me what you want to do, and we will find a way,” Buress told Hines. 

The two comedians first met over 20 years ago, working in the Chicago comedy scene. As part of the promotion for Lockdown Detroit, Hines recorded advertisements that can be seen as sequels to his Toby Jones character, now Moby Combs, a cryptocurrency advisor and cryotherapy enthusiast. These new advertisements, featuring original music and singing by Hines, along with the new-age subject matter, feel like the exact middle of the Hines-Buress Venn Diagram. 

Hines has many more stories about his nine years working in Cook County that did not make its way into the special, but can be heard in his upcoming tour dates. In conversation with VICE, he told a story that I imagine will eventually make it onto the stage. 

“I actually physically fought my supervisor, and didn’t get fired. Punched that motherfucker.”

Detroit Lockdown is streaming now on YouTube.

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