The final episode of “Time: The Kalief Browder Story,” which followed the unjustified three-year incarceration of a teenager at the infamously troubled Rikers Island, aired last Wednesday. The series highlighted everything from the corrupt and abusive prison culture at Rikers to the flawed and biased nature of the criminal justice system ― both of which led to the deterioration of Browder’s mental health. Two years after his release, he died by suicide.
In one particularly striking episode of the six-part documentary series, Browder’s mother, Venida, recalled asking his father, Everett, for assistance paying their son’s bail. But she said he refused to help, repeatedly saying his son was “bad” and that “if Kalief is in Rikers, something is wrong.”
But the only thing wrong was his logic. For Browder and innumerable black Americans in prison, incarceration is often the outcome of a centuries-long malicious cycle of systemic oppression. Yet society ― including communities of color ― frequently typecasts prisoners as immoral, unworthy and irredeemable.
Everett’s reaction to his son’s imprisonment highlights a disturbing school of thought that paints black men and boys as inherently criminal and deserving of imprisonment. The docuseries on his own son shows why this is far from the case, not just for Browder, but countless other black Americans who have been incarcerated.
Black kids are rarely given the benefit of the doubt.
Black kids can be criminalized without having ever committed a crime.
In May 2010, a then-16-year-old Browder was walking to his Bronx home when he was pointed out by someone sitting in the back of a police car. The young man, who was only identified by his first name, Raul, in the documentary, claimed Browder stole his backpack. Browder was taken to the police station that night and ended up being detained at Rikers Island for three years for the alleged theft.
Not only did Browder’s accuser change his account of the alleged theft multiple times while Browder was being held at the jail, but there was also no real evidence tying him to the supposed crime, and prosecutors were aware that the witness returned to Mexico for an indefinite amount of time. The case against Browder was flimsy at best. Yet he remained behind bars.
While white men like Brock Turner, who was actually convicted of a crime, only serve a few months in prison on the premise of a promising future, black boys like Browder spent three years in one of the country’s most violent jails on a non-credible claim of backpack theft.
There are a number of statistics that further demonstrate the racial discrepancies among young people within the criminal justice system. A 2015 study by Penn State sociologist David Ramey found that black students who misbehave are more likely to be placed at the mercy of law enforcement officials than school administrators or counselors in comparison to their white peers. The ACLU reports that black juvenile offenders are 18 times more likely to serve a sentence of life without parole than their white counterparts.
Socioeconomic status can be the ultimate determinant of one’s fate.
With a bail set at $3,000, Browder’s single-parent family struggled to come up with his bail money. Citing the Prison Policy Initiative, the documentary states that 60 percent of people that can’t pay their bail ― at Rikers and beyond ― are in the poorest third of society.
After Browder’s family raised the money, they discovered Browder’s bail was denied because he was on probation for joyriding in a stolen bread truck. While Browder’s probation status was the ultimate reason he wasn’t able to go home, for many Rikers prisoners, their detainment on the island actually means nothing more than they can’t afford not to be there.
According to the #CLOSErikers campaign, 79 percent of Rikers inmates haven’t even been convicted, but simply can’t pay their bail. So being in Rikers doesn’t necessarily mean “something’s wrong” ― it oftentimes means you can’t afford to leave.
Some detainees are at the mercy of attorneys who care more about their job than someone else’s freedom.
Browder’s trial was delayed eight times. In seven of those instances, the reasoning for the delays was the “people weren’t ready.”
Browder’s attorney Paul Prestia said the case was repeatedly being pushed back because prosecutors knew they didn’t have sufficient evidence against Browder.
During one episode of the docuseries, Browder’s mom said that before her son’s charges were withdrawn, she overheard the prosecutor in the case saying that she wasn’t going to put her job on the line. It seems that the prosecutor’s main concern was masking her missteps in the case, thus she dragged her feet in withdrawing the charges, as if a teenager’s future wasn’t at stake.
When Browder’s case was finally dismissed, it was because one of the nine judges involved in his trial, former Judge Patricia DiMango, realized that there was no actual case.
Judge Darcel Clark, who presided over Browder’s case for six of his court dates, admitted to NY1 that the district attorney’s office, Bronx courts and Department of Corrections all shared the blame for his wrongful imprisonment. In the documentary, Browder’s mom said the criminal justice system at large was at fault.
Unethical conduct like that in Browder’s case has led to the wrongful convictions of other innocent people, such as John Thompson. Thompson was weeks away from being executed by the state of Louisiana when he was exonerated of carjacking and murder convictions. Prosecutors in his case held onto evidence that could have cleared Thompson’s name long before. After an 18-year imprisonment, Thompson’s attorneys discovered the evidence that had been withheld.
Additionally, court backlogs can keep the accused detained for greater lengths of time than necessary.
Bronx courts ― where Browder was tried ― are considerably congested. In 2015, Scott Levy, staff attorney with the public defense nonprofit organization Bronx Defenders, told NY1 that in Bronx criminal courts, “court delay is really the name of the game.”
Some prisoners have never even committed a crime.
Browder maintained his innocence throughout the entire ordeal and was never proven guilty.
Many attorneys and judges effectively pressure defendants into pleading guilty. According to The New York Times, 97 percent of federal cases and 94 percent of state cases result in plea bargains.
Prior to his meeting with DiMango, who told Browder he could return home if he pleaded guilty, Browder was offered 13 other plea deals for the alleged backpack theft. And while that pressure didn’t work on Browder, that’s not always the case.
Because maintaining your innocence becomes the most risky and least appealing option, a number of prisoners are wrongfully convicted. In 2015, 149 people were exonerated of their crimes because they had the opportunity to prove their innocence. But not all of those who are wrongfully convicted or have falsely pleaded guilty are as fortunate. In other words, not everyone in prison has actually committed a crime.
If you’re not yet convinced, look no further than the case of a Chicago cop who has been accused (although not yet convicted) of framing 51 people for murder since the 1990s.
While anyone who has watched the Browder documentary understands that he was wrongfully imprisoned at Rikers, the rationale his father used for not contributing bail money revealed a common misconception about those who are incarcerated: they’re lowly people who deserve to be there.
Many, like Browder, have simply been caught in the web of social immobility in a country built on the forced labor of their ancestors. And discriminatory policing amplified by the war on drugs only exacerbates these problems. The NAACP reports that black Americans are incarcerated at six times the rate of whites.
Browder was regarded as an intelligent, resourceful and ambitious individual by those fortunate enough to have known him. To Jay Z, who is one of the docuseries’ executive producers, he was a prophet. Despite the trauma Browder endured at Rikers, he went on to attain his GED, maintain a 3.55 GPA at Bronx Community College and tutor students preparing to take their own GED tests.
He was far from a “bad” kid.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Browder was detained at Rikers because he didn’t have the financial means to be released. Browder was on probation for an earlier offense, which was the reason his bail was later denied.