Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Arrested at 16 and unjustly jailed for three years, Browder took his life in 2015. A new six-part documentary series, executive produced by Jay Z, exposes the many ways the criminal justice system failed him.
Today, Attorney General Jeff Sessions created his Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, as the White House ordered him to do. “Yes, incarceration is painful for the families of inmates, and every conviction represents a failure on multiple levels of society,” said Sessions, addressing the National Association of Attorneys General today. “But the costs of rising crime are even more severe. Drug crimes and violent felonies change the lives of victims forever.”
One person whose life was changed forever by incarceration was Kalief Browder, who, in a fair world, would serve on Sessions’ public safety task force. Arrested in 2010 at age 16 and shipped to Rikers Island for a crime he didn’t commit, Broweder was mentally and physically abused by virtually every part of the criminal justice experiment. Who better to serve as Sessions’ advisor?
But Browder committed suicide in June 2015, overtaken by the demons he acquired while serving months in solitary confinement without a conviction or trial to justify his detainment. Anyone interested in criminal justice issues can learn a lot from his life through the new documentary series “Time: The Kalief Browder Story,” which debuts March 1 on Spike TV.
The six-part series was executive-produced by Jay Z, who provides his own commentary throughout the series, and who met Browder after he was released from jail in 2013. (The photo of that meeting remains one of the few in public view where Browder can be found smiling.) Jay-Z calls Browder “a prophet” in the opening, but looking at the numbers behind his ordeal the more accurate term would be “martyr.” Browder was:
- arrested and charged with grand larceny at 16 years old after being falsely fingered for robbing a man of his bookbag;
- committed to Rikers Island when his family couldn’t immediately post his $3,000 bail;
- denied bail later, due to a prior conviction for taking a joyride in a bakery truck, after his mother was able to secure the $900 bond with the help of a neighbor;
- detained at Rikers for 1,117 days while awaiting trial, refusing to plea to any charges;
- in solitary confinement for almost 800 of those days;
- scheduled for 28 court dates, for which he actually appeared in court 15 times—only to be told each time that his trial would be delayed or continued due to prosecutors unable to produce a formal case against him;
- hospitalized once and attempted suicide four times while in jail;
- released on June 5, 2013, after three years of incarceration, when the New York City District Attorney finally gave up.
Thanks to Jennifer Gonnerman’s relentless reporting on the case for The New Yorker, we have some small idea of what Browder’s life at Rikers looked like. She was able to obtain videos of some of the brutal beatdowns he incurred, sometimes from inmates, often from the jail’s correctional officers. Gonnerman covered so much ground through her coverage of the Browder family that one would assume there was nothing left to uncover, especially after the untimely death of Browder’s mother Venida last October.
The documentary’s filmmakers were able to go a bit deeper into Browder’s story, though, namely by talking to people who were locked up with him and some of the security officers who were tasked with protecting him. Some of the most powerful scenes are those where the filmmakers confront Browder’s attackers in Rikers, showing them the footage of those attacks and making them explain.
“Time” is far from just an account of what Browder’s life in jail was like, though. It’s also an indictment of the system that landed him there. Browder’s 2010 arrest is put in context with the discriminatory stop-and-frisk policing practices happening at the time, which a federal judge would later rule unconstitutional. The film also connects his imprisonment to the injustices of the cash bail system—which jails people not because they are guilty but because they can’t afford to post bond—and the torturous insanity of placing teenagers in solitary confinement (or locking them up with adults to begin with).
The documentary is both bleak and enlightening, but Browder’s death inspired a number of criminal justice reforms in his wake: In October 2015, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio signed a law that established a bill of rights for jail inmates and began a system of collecting data on the city’s jails, including the average bail amount imposed on defendants. In December that year, courts allowed for a huge settlement that would free hundreds of people from solitary confinement. In May 2016, the city took further steps to ease bail burdens by placing ATM machines in courthouses and allowing credit card payments for posting bonds.
And yet the task force assembled by the Attorney General could end up pushing to undo these kinds of reforms, setting the stage for more Browder travesties to happen in the future. Before that happens, the members of his panel should watch every second of this documentary.