Although my first exposure to state-sanctioned injustice was the killing of Eric Garner in 2014, I quickly learned that the criminal justice system was built to enslave and steal the lives of millions of people across America. Kalief Browder’s story was one of the first that opened my eyes to a devastatingly unethical and untrustworthy system that tortures and breaks people from the top (laws, judges) to the bottom (cops, correctional officers). Netflix addition “TIME: The Kalief Browder Story” is a heartbreaking 6-part documentary series executive produced by Jay Z detailing Kalief’s story from beginning to end. The show examines the countless ways the system failed Kalief throughout his life as he went from an impoverished baby to a 16-year-old child wrongfully convicted of stealing a backpack and imprisoned for three years in Rikers Jail. Prior to and during Kalief’s incarceration in the horrific penitentiary, sending children to an adult prison was completely legal- a statute that President Obama eliminated upon hearing Kalief’s story.
When Kalief was 16, he and a friend were falsely accused of stealing a backpack containing a cell phone, camera, and $700, despite the fact that Kalief was home at the time of the apparent robbery. Kalief and his friend were walking home from a party one night as a cop car pulled up next to them and officers began accusing them of theft. The robbery victim sat in the car and watched the accusations take place. When Kalief denied stealing the backpack that night, the victim changed his story and said that the robbery had actually taken place two weeks prior. The officers handcuffed Kalief and his friend and told them they were going down to the precinct for questioning, but they should be released later that night. When they arrived at the department, both boys were fingerprinted and questioned for exactly three minutes about the so-called theft before they were booked at the Bronx County Criminal Court. Kalief originally thought their being stopped by the cops was a routine “stop and frisk,” a policy put in place in New York City when Rudy Giulani was the mayor, which allowed cops to temporarily detain, question, and pat down any random passerby without reason. Kalief had been stopped and frisked before and he had one encounter in particular with cops that sent him to jail less than a year earlier. Kalief watched a few of his friends take a bread truck for a joyride, which crashed into another vehicle and when the authorities arrived, Kalief was arrested and charged with grand larceny. Because he didn’t have adequate representation, Kalief pleaded guilty to the charge and was sentenced to five years of probation. At the time, Kalief didn’t know how serious this sentence was, which essentially guaranteed he would never have a criminal record. Kalief’s false arrest for the theft negated any chance of his release as he now had another charge while on probation. The day after his arrest, Kalief was charged with grand larceny, robbery, and assault, and his bail was set for $3,000- an astronomical price his mother was unable to pay as they lived in poverty in the Bronx. Within one day, Kalief’s life was changed forever. A backpack he didn’t steal, a $3,000 bail, and three years in Rikers Jail would destroy an innocent child’s life.
Rikers Jail is located on its own island in New York and it is infamous for the terrifying amount of violence between inmates and guards on a daily basis. While in prison, Kalief received the bare minimum representation from his public defender, Brendan O’Meara, due to an overwhelming court system and corrupt prosecutors working against their every move. Despite the case being incredibly straight forward and the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution certifying the “right to a speedy and public trial,” Kalief would never receive such treatment. In order for Kalief to receive a trial, the prosecutor and defense attorney would have to state their readiness so the trial judge could begin the process and a jury would be selected. The prosecutor on the case repeatedly declined the trial, saying they were not yet ready. This process would continue for months and Kalief remained in jail through the rest of the year. To make matters worse, Kalief stated that O’Meara never went to visit him at Rikers once throughout the process, opting instead to use Skype or phone calls as their main form of communication. Kalief grew frustrated and impatient as he had been unlawfully imprisoned for a crime without even having a sentencing. O’Meara recommended that Kalief plead guilty to the charges in favor of a three and a half-year prison stint, but Kalief refused, saying he would rather go to trial and face a 15-year sentence than admit to something he did not do.
Through the three years Kalief spent in Rikers Jail, he was held in solitary confinement for two, including 14 of those months consecutively. During this time, Kalief was beaten senseless by guards, starved for days, and tried to commit suicide twice: once by hanging himself with his bed sheet and the other by slicing his wrist with a broken bucket. He dramatically lost weight after having his food taken away and became dramatically more depressed by the day. But still, Kalief declined a plea deal and waited for the trial that he hoped would clear his name. At this point, he was imprisoned for nearly three years despite going to trial or being officially sentenced to prison. He was simply in Riker’s because he couldn’t pay the $3,000 to be released. Every broken bone, stomped limb, black eye, lost tooth, and weight loss was because he was too poor to post bail. On May 29, 2013, Kalief’s case was dismissed due to the District Attorney’s overwhelming case load. Kalief was released from prison without a trial, without a jury, and without a verdict. Unfortunately, the weight of Kalief’s trauma in Riker’s would continue to haunt him for the rest of his days. The third part of the documentary examines Kalief’s life after prison and how his time incarcerated, and specifically the years in solitary confinement, broke his entire soul.
Kalief’s story is traumatic, devastating, and infuriating, but it’s not uncommon in the criminal justice system. Statistics show that approximately 80% of people on Rikers island haven’t even been convicted of a crime. People sit in prisons all over the country for years just waiting for a trial or a conviction or some opportunity for them to receive closure and/or justice. For many of those people, their lack of funds to post bail or impartial public defenders leave them in prison for decades. Although Kalief didn’t spend 10 years in Rikers, he was incarcerated for three years too many. This documentary series is extremely difficult to watch, but the topic is too important to ignore. I can only hope for the day that prisons like Rikers will be shut down forever, but for now, I’ll remember Kalief and fight for the innocent, oppressed, helpless children just like him.