The Life of Kalief Browder, Subject of New Documentary Produced by Jay Z, Is an American Tragedy
Kalief Browder took his own life in 2015, at 22 years old, in his home the Bronx. He had spent three years of his short life imprisoned at the notoriously brutal Rikers Island for allegedly stealing a fellow teenager’s backpack, a petty crime that’s been committed in the hallways of suburban high schools since time immemorial, with punishment usually no stricter than a few days’ detention. Browder’s entire time at Rikers was spent awaiting trial, meaning he’d never actually been convicted for the supposed infraction, and he steadfastly maintained his own innocence. He spent about two thirds of his time in jail–nearly two years–in solitary confinement.
Browder’s tragic life and death is the subject of TIME: The Kalief Browder Story, a six-episode series that premieres on Spike tomorrow, directed by documentarian Jenner Furst and produced by Jay Z and the Weinstein Company. “What was done to him was a huge injustice and I think people will see his story and realize, man, this is going on,” Jay said of the series at the Sundance Film Festival last year. “This is not like one case that happened. This is happening a lot for people – especially where I come from in the boroughs and the Marcy Projects and the Bronx and Brooklyn and all these places.”
Browder’s story came to national attention in 2014, after the journalist Jennifer Gonnerman wrote a penetrating story about his imprisonment in the New Yorker. The details, as Gonnerman relayed them, were heartbreaking: Browder was just 16 years old when he was arrested, and his family could not afford to pay an attorney or to bail him out. The victim of the robbery had only accused Browder a week after it had happened, and conspicuously changed the date of the alleged crime in a later statement. Browder made his first trip to solitary after an altercation with another juvenile inmate, who, Browder said, had been harassing other boys in their section, throwing his sneakers at them.
The experience of living in isolation in a twelve-by-seven cell with no air conditioning hardened his psyche, and he was sent back to “the Bing” continually, complaining to family members about being underfed and physically harassed by guards and fellow prisoners. Surveillance videos obtained and published by Gonnerman a year after her New Yorker profile seemed to confirm this second complaint. One clip showed a guard throwing Browder to the ground while he was handcuffed; another showed him being beaten by a large group of inmates after he’d punched a gang leader who spit in his face. Browder attempted suicide several times while held in solitary, and after his charges were finally dropped and he was released from jail. He died by hanging himself with strips torn from a bed sheet–a method he’d learned when he saw another boy attempt it in Rikers, and that he’d attempted himself while inside.
Gonnerman’s reporting drew attention to the horrible particulars of Browder’s situation, but also to the thicket of systemic failures that created them: the profiling and criminalization of young black men by the police; the financial discrimination of the bail system; delays at overburdened court systems that can lead to pretrial incarcerations of ludicrous and even unconstitutional length; the psychological havoc wreaked by solitary confinement, especially on juveniles.
Browder’s story had a wide impact. Last year, then-president Obama penned a Washington Post op-ed about the dangers of solitary confinement, which opened with a brief recounting of Browder’s death. Shortly after, Obama issued a series of executive orders banning the use of solitary in federal prisons against juvenile offenders and adults who’d committed minor infractions. After reading Gonnerman’s article, Jay Z invited Browder to his office in New York. “I just wanted to give him words of encouragement, that I saw his story and I’m proud of him for making it through, and to keep pushing. He told me that he was going to college,” the rapper said at a press conference to promote the series. “Then I got a phone call from [Roc Nation president Chaka Pilgrim] and she told me that Kalief had taken his own life.”
Jay Z has said that he hopes TIME will “save a lot of lives” by shining a light on situations like Browder’s. The series debuts at 10 p.m. March 1 on Spike.