A new docuseries titled “Time: The Kalief Browder Story” explores what can happen when systematic inequality, the dismissal of mental health issues, over-policing and a fractured justice system collide.
Airing Wednesdays on Spike TV, the six-part series is an in-depth look into the life of Kalief Browder, the young Bronx native who served three years on Rikers Island without being convicted of a crime and eventually took his own life in 2015.
Jenner Furst, who directed the series, told The Huffington Post that after reading about Browder’s gripping story in The New Yorker, he felt compelled to tell that story through a longer form visual piece.
“When the spotlights fade out and the evening news is over, [the Browder] family was sitting there and no one was talking to them and no one was following up with them about what they were going through,” he said. “And they were grieving but they were also trying to take over Kalief’s fight for justice. There was something about that chapter that hadn’t really been explored.”
Sixteen-year-old Browder was arrested in 2010 for allegedly stealing a backpack. He was unable to make bail and detained at Rikers Island for three years before the charges were dropped and Browder was freed. Following his release in 2013, Browder’s story started circulating in the media, which documented the abuse he faced in jail. Two years later, Browder killed himself, leaving his family to carry forward with his quest for justice.
Furst said his team spent about five or six months filming interviews and building “a very personal relationship” with the Browder family. They also uncovered surveillance footage from Rikers and combed through hours of outtakes from Browder’s interview with Nightline. Those candid on-camera moments, which included Browder’s “somewhat coy and awkward responses,” helped to accurately represent his character, Furst said.
“We had to find every single second that had ever been recorded or that existed that was a testimony or was a photograph or was a memory of Kalief that we could because our protagonist, our lead character, is no longer with us,” Furst said.
While the show focuses on Browder, it paints a grim picture of the system at large. The series explores how one allegation of theft and the inability to make the $3,000 bail, set off a domino effect of problems from which Browder was never truly able to recover. As his trial was delayed on 14 separate occasions, Browder was languishing in jail. He was repeatedly thrown into solitary confinement and suffered violence from both correctional officers and inmates. Three years later, his case was dismissed.
“[Browder’s life] had every single example of systematic failure on behalf of poor, powerless and for the most part black and brown people in the United States,” Furst said. He argued that Browder’s situation could ultimately be traced back to poverty and economic inequality.
“I think justice is money, unfortunately, in America. If you have money, you get justice. If you don’t have money, you experience vast amounts of injustice,” he said.
Browder’s story has become a devastating symbol of the criminal justice system can impact America’s most vulnerable citizens. His predicament was complicated and messy, but as the docuseries shows, the systems that should have helped him, ultimately cracked under the pressure.
“Kalief represents everything,” Furst said. “And that’s what’s powerful about him and what everyone responds to. I’m just lucky to have such a messenger.”
“Time: The Kalief Browder Story” premiers Wednesday at 10 p.m.
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CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated that Kalief died by suicide while in police custody. His death occurred after his release.