Kalief Browder was just a 16-year old walking home from a party when his life changed forever.
Accused of stealing a backpack, the Bronx teen was imprisoned without conviction in one of America’s most notorious detention facilities, Rikers Island, for over 1000 days – most of them in solitary confinement. Two years after his release, Kalief committed suicide.
Kalief’s story has become a rallying cry for criminal justice reform. Which is one of the reasons Jay-Z and Harvey Weinstein teamed up to executive produce a 6-part mini series that’s currently airing on Spike. “Time: The Kalief Browder Story”, is the definition of essential viewing.
It was time inside a jail, albeit a fictional one, that opened Orange Is The New Black star Nick Sandow’s eyes, and led to him becoming a co-producer in this series.
“We say that the system is broken. I think that I’ve come to the realization that it’s doing exactly what it was designed to do and that is to take poor people and people of color and put them out of sight,” Sandow said.
The crime Browder allegedly committed was flawed in policing inaccuracies as well as lacking in evidence. Yet that didn’t stop Browder awaiting trial for 3-years, in a country where criminal defendants are innocent until proven guilty. Why? Because he couldn’t afford bail.
The result was that Kalief, just a kid, was thrown into the most hostile of environments with other kids caught up in a system of institutionalised racism and poverty. Nothing drives that home like the video below. CCTV footage taken from inside Rikers shows the moment Browder was jumped for refusing to affiliate with a gang. Please be warned that the footage is distressing.
“Where were the white prisoners?” a teenager imprisoned alongside Browder queries in episode two. Not in Rikers. The docuseries reminds us with footage of Dominique Strauss Kahn, the former IMF supremo, accused of raping a maid in his Manhattan hotel room in 2011 – he spent one day in jail after paying his $5 million bail.
By the time time Kahn was walking free, Browder had been incarcerated for a year without trial. Magicking millions out of thin air wasn’t a luxury his mother, Venida, could afford. It took her two weeks to raise the $900 needed for her adopted-son’s bail. By that time his bail privilege had been revoked due to a probation violation. Like so many young, poor kids in America – Browder had a previous felony. He was given a 5-year probation after joy-riding a bread truck with his friends.
As a confused kid in a police precinct, you’ll do anything to get out of that situation. Including signing a probation agreement that you might not fully understand, but has the potential to tear your life apart to the point where not even innocence can protect you.
If Browder’s story doesn’t prompt New York to overhaul its bail system then I’m not sure what will. After all the state’s top judge, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, referred to it as “totally ass-backwards in every respect”.
Unlike most states, New York doesn’t allow judges to take into consideration whether a defendant is a threat to society, a policy that Judge Lippman described as “ridiculous”. Such a system allows for potentially dangerous offenders who have a few $ to walk free, while poor, non-violent defendants are thrown in jail.
This system of mass-incarceration means that one of every three black men between the ages of 18-30 in America is in prison, on probation, in jail or on parole. A shocking statistics that led social rights activist, Bryan Stevenson, to state that “wealth, not culpability shapes outcomes”.
Browder was a victim of this system. Although he didn’t die inside Rikers – despite being starved, beaten regularly and placed in solitary for far longer than should be allowed – that place killed him. In interview footage following his release, Kalief sits on stone-steps and struggles with his story, stopping nervously as people walked past. His eyes have seen too much.
In a heartbreakingly telling moment, Browder says he’s “21 but feels like he’s 40”. Robbed of his youth by a system designed to keep poor people in cages. His unfair treatment ultimately proved too much to handle, and Browder hanged himself.
In the words of Judge Lippman, “let’s not wait until another young person is left without a life before we act again.”