(NEW YORK) — For Kalief Browder, justice wasn’t simply blind, it betrayed him.
Browder was arrested at age 16 for stealing a backpack. He spent more than three years at the notorious New York City jail Rikers Island, including nearly 800 days in solitary confinement. He was never tried, but was held because he couldn’t make bail.
When he finally was released, the system had already broken him.
Nightline spoke with Browder in October 2014 and he spoke about how hard it was for him to adjust back to normal life after what he had been through.
“Before I went to jail or even solitary confinement, I didn’t have problems like this, and there’s times where I don’t go to sleep, I can’t even sleep at night,” Browder said at the time. “I probably get three to four hours of sleep a day. You know, I’m always up and I’m always thinking about jail like before… I smile and I joke a lot but you know deep down, I’m a mess because it’s like I’m 21, and on the inside I feel like I’m 40, you know, I feel like I’m a grown old man and it’s like, for what?”
After his release, Browder seemed optimistic. He was working, had earned his GED, and started classes at Bronx Community College, pulling a 3.56 GPA.
But the psychological trauma from jail was haunting. Seven months after his interview with Nightline, Browder hung himself with an air conditional cord in his home in the Bronx. He was 22.
The truth of the hellish nightmare he experienced inside Rikers is now being explored in a six-part Spike TV documentary, Time: The Kalief Browder Story, produced by the Weinstein Company and Jay-Z.
“I think people will see his story and realize like man, this is going on,” Jay-Z said during an interview at the Sundance Film Festival. “This is not like one case that happened. This is happening a lot for people, you know especially places where I come from.”
The docu-series attempts to further humanize Browder through styled recreations. There are disturbing deposition tapes and alarming jail security video showing him being beaten by a Rikers guard.
Jenner Furst, the writer and director of the docu-series, said Browder was not alone in his experiences.
“I think that part of what makes this story so horrific, is that it’s happening every day,” Furst said. “And that Kalief is one of many, many kids who are experiencing a similar issue.”
In life, Kalief offered a cautionary tale about inefficiency of the criminal justice system. In death, he became a martyr.
New York City ended solitary confinement for 16 and 17- year-olds, and last year, New York State passed “Kalief’s Law” to ensure a speedy trial. President Obama penned an op-ed citing Browder’s story, calling for the end of solitary for juveniles nationwide.
Browder’s siblings add their voices to the series, fighting for justice reform and calling for the closing of Rikers Island.
“It’s ludicrous how we can put people behind human beings behind cages forget about them and then release them back into society either because they did something wrong, like they messed something up and got the wrong person or, ‘your time is up, now go home.’ I mean it’s not human,” said his brother, Akeem Browder.
The docu-series features never-before-seen outtakes captured during Nightline 2014 interview with Browder.
“When you have your subject is no longer with you, every little bit of footage that’s ever existed of them becomes that much more significant,” Furst said. “[The] Nightline footage really actually helped us tell this story in a way that we would of never been able to do, of course, you know, the outtakes, the moments of humanity, the tenderness of Kalief’s character that hadn’t cut through at that point in his life.”
At just 5-foot-5, Browder refused to join a gang in jail, so inmates beat him and guards mocked him. He told Nightline that he was never going to be the same again.
“Nobody protecting me, like, I’m by myself,” Kalief Browder said in 2014. “I didn’t have anybody to run to for my problems… in there you have to fight for the phone, you had to fight to be able to sit at the table, you had to fight for people not to take your commissary, you had to fight for any little thing and it’s like I wasn’t in a gang.” The anger, isolation and brutality Browder encountered in jail stayed with him long after he went home, and weighed heavily on his family and friends.
Before he went to Rikes, his sister Nicole Browder said he was “a normal kid,” but after he got out, she said he was “soulless.”
“He wasn’t the same anymore,” Nicole Browder said. “I couldn’t talk to him. He’s very guarded… It was like walking on eggshells. He’s fresh out in society. Here he is in a home that he hasn’t been in so long so he has to get used to his surroundings.”
Browder’s brother Akeem said Kalief would continue to mimic routines he had in jail at home.
“He used to line up bottles on the window sill and talk to them because that was something he did since he didn’t have human contact in jail,” Akeem Browder said. “He had to, I guess, figure figuratively speak to bottles that would take place in his mind as people.”
Nicole Browder said it was devastating to see her brother struggle so hard after he won his freedom.
“It’s hard to watch. It’s hard to hear, it’s hard to constantly repeat to see him go do all that,” she said. “It could have been one of us honestly could have been anybody.”
With this docu-series, Furst said he hopes to open people’s minds that what happened to Kalief Browder could happen to anyone’s child.
“Unfortunately in America, for kids who are not of color, that they don’t face the same scrutiny and that that’s not right,” Furst said. “People in America, I think, have an opportunity to imagine Kalief as their child, regardless of whether they’re black or white, to get to meet him in a way that’s filled with humanity and a way that they can learn to love him so that they can experience what his family felt.”
“If I see if I’m the officer on the street I’m trained to look at a black and brown skinned person differently than I am to a white person,” Akeem Browder added.
After Kalief Browder’s death, his family filed a $20 million lawsuit against the city of New York and other parties. His mother Venida Browder died at age 63 before the case could be resolved.
“When Kalief hung himself, my mom found him,” Nicole Browder said. “She could never recover from it… I tried to get her help as much as possible. I did. I tried so hard.”
From the grave, and now from the screen, Kalief Browder’s family believes his story is forever a grim reminder that justice delayed is justice denied. For him, there was neither justice nor peace.
“I hope that people understand that Kalief is not the only one,” Nicole Browder said. “There are other kids, adults that are suffering just in the same way if not worse. We hope that this doesn’t happen ever again.”
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