“Kalief Browder Is A Modern Day Prophet”
Jay Z’s Tragic Prison Doc
The story of one man contains multitudes.
Images: Spike TV
On May 15, 2010, Kalief Browder and a friend were walking home from a late-night party along a familiar stretch of Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. They were stopped and arrested by police for allegedly stealing a backpack. At 16 years old, Kalief was an adult in the eyes of the law. Once arraigned and unable to afford his $3,000 bail, he was sent to Rikers Island. He would languish there for more than 1,000 days awaiting trail.
Adamant in maintaining his innocence, Kalief refused to accept plea deals in exchange for time served or freedom. Believing that justice must eventually find him, he weathered 30 court dates, 16 different DA’s handling his case, beatings by other inmates and corrections officers (both captured by surveillance), and an estimated 800 days in solitary confinement. Incarcerated without conviction, he attempted suicide four times.
30 court dates, 16 different DA’s, beatings by other inmates and corrections officers (both captured by surveillance), 800 days in solitary confinement. Incarcerated without conviction, he attempted suicide four times.
Kalief’s case never went to trial. Charges of robbery, grand larceny and assault were ultimately dropped. The failing bureaucracies of the City of New York had stolen three years of Kalief’s life.
After his release from Rikers, Kalief went public with the details of his experience: he alleged starvation in retaliation for suicide attempts, torture, violence and systemic corruption. The Bronx native hoped that in sharing his story no one else would have to endure the same fate.
But in 2015, forever marred by a deepening depression and paranoia, Kalief committed suicide as direct result of his experience. He was 22.
Neither the NYPD, the criminal courts or Rikers Island have ever apologized or accepted responsibility for Kalief Browder’s death.
Time: The Kalief Browder Story, a six-part documentary series executive produced by Jay Z, takes a deep dive into Kalief’s story. While the various broken systems that contributed to his demise are explored in detail, the project never loses sight of the human being who was forced to bear their collective weight: Kalief the son. The brother. The friend.
“Kalief Browder is a modern-day prophet. His story a failure of the judicial process,” says Jay Z in a press release for the series. “…Now we must confront the issues and events that occurred so other young men can have a chance at justice.”
Mass Appeal spoke with Jenner Furst, co-creator, writer and director of Time: The Kalief Browder Story to learn more.
Executive Producer Jay Z with Jenner Furst (right) & co-producer Julia Willoughby Nason
MASS APPEAL: How did you come to learn of Kalief’s life?
Jenner Furst: As a New Yorker, I’ve been tuned in to what’s been happening in our city with Rikers and issues of injustice overall, and I read Kalief’s story in the local news and then [Jennifer Gonnerman’s article] in The New Yorker. But it wasn’t until my friend and long-time collaborator Nick Sandow passionately brought his death up to me that we really started discussing it. It grew from there.
I felt as a documentary filmmaker that the ultimate way to honor Kalief would be to tell his story in depth so his name would never fade away. To do it in a way so substantial and honoring of the details that it would preserve his history. Kalief’s story basically traverses every system in its failure, from foster care to public education in poor communities, to, of course, the bail system, the public defender system, the jail system, mental health system, the use of solitary. So, in going down Kalief’s journey, there was an opportunity to open up into every nook and cranny of this large systemic failure that he experienced.
“Really, it is all sorts of criminal activity disguised as the law. And it’s murder. That’s what happened to Kalief, and sadly what happened to his mother, Vendida. She died of a broken heart as a victim of collateral damage.”
Do you think if it were white, suburban kids getting locked up, having years stolen from them, starved and beaten, we would still be told to be patient with change?
No. It would be a media sensation about ‘How could this be happening?’ Folks would be held accountable and arrested for abusing children. Because essentially it is child abuse. It has been child abuse for a long time. Really, it is all sorts of criminal activity disguised as the law. And it’s murder. That’s what happened to Kalief, and sadly what happened to his mother, Vendida. She died of a broken heart as a victim of collateral damage. This affects entire families.
Sadly, her death isn’t counted in the the toll of mass incarceration when it absolutely should be.
As a witness to her passing, it was a very, very sad moment, but one imbued with such significance. All of her family and my partner Julia and I, we all understood at that moment that she was now the next victim of this horrible beast. It claimed another life.
How did her passing affect the project?
It made it even more significant. We were witnessing the passing of another amazing human being and we are in a position to honor her legacy and look back on every thing we had done and understand that every minute, every second we had with Vendida was precious. We were in this not only for Kalief, but also of her. For all the mothers. For the mothers of victims who are as much victims themselves. For the folks whose stories go untold. This was a chance to honor her.
There are a lot of parallels with Mamie Till, who never got to see justice for Emmett Till’s death, and who bravely put [the reality of his murder] before the public. I believe that after Kalief’s death, Vendida really began to rise as a civil rights activist in her own right—despite her great pain and grief—and it was an amazing thing to witness. There was a powerful chapter, the last chapter of her life, in which although the City had not apologized, although justice had not been served, she was out there and really bringing incredible attention and spotlight to what her family had gone through and what her son ultimately succumbed to.
Can you talk about the delicacies of working with the jailhouse surveillance footage of Kalief and of striking a balance between mining the scope of the problem and never losing sight of Kalief as a person?
The governing law of this project was to honor Kalief’s truth. The human being—all sides. Who was he really? What compelled him to do what he did, which was this kind of unthinkable bravery. To say no to a system that is so scary and intimidating and forceful in exacting these types of decisions from millions of people across the country. He said no. He literally put his hand in the door and stopped the machine.
That human truth was the guiding light. At every chance where there was a window to give the viewer some context to better understand it all, we did. And that context could range from historical info about Rikers or a fact on bail or stop and frisk. We’d include it as long as it didn’t take us away from Kalief, as long as we never lost Kalief. Our filter was whether or not it felt relevant to him. We were able to see everything that way because everything—all these systems—related to him.
“Do you really want to talk about the failure of foster care? Or the drug war? Or the beginning of the new Jim Crow and how Kalief is a child of that? This is at the heart of what Jay Z calls Kalief’s prophecy: We were given an opportunity in his life. There is something to be examined from every aspect of his short time on earth.”
He had been a child of the system since he was born. The fact that they brought up all this stuff at his deposition with the City of New York opened up the questions: Why are you bringing this up? Do you really want to talk about the failure of foster care? Or the failure of the drug war? Or the beginning of the new Jim Crow and how it evolved and how he is a child of that? His birth mother was probably in and out of Rikers herself. I think that we were given an opportunity in Kalief’s life—and this is at the heart of what Jay Z calls Kalief’s prophecy—that there is something to be examined from every aspect of his short time on earth. As filmmakers, it was our goal to overturn every stone and to assess it and allow it to be a gateway into more knowledge for the viewer.
What, if any, cultural changes have actually been implemented within Rikers, within the court system since Kalief shared his ordeal?
“Kalief’s Law” moves to reform New York’s speedy trial provision ensuring that people arrested actually receive a speedy trial and aren’t held in pretrial custody for any longer than needed. Another reform was President Obama outlawed the use of solitary for juveniles at federal prisons. But it’s important to remember that it’s still used at the state and county levels. Jail is where you are presumed innocent. You’ve not been formally convicted of a crime. The idea that we hold people in solitary confinement that are innocent under the eyes of the law is an absolute farce to our American democracy. There is still reform to be had.
“Jail is where you are presumed innocent. You’ve not been formally convicted of a crime. The idea that we hold people in solitary confinement who are innocent under the eyes of the law is an absolute farce to our American democracy.”
To point out exact reforms that are in place right now at Rikers Island, there are no longer any people under the age of 18 in solitary confinement. They’ve been able to abolish solitary for juveniles. But we need to go a step further still and abolish solitary all together. The fact that a practice deemed inappropriate for animals in testing facilities and labs, we do to human beings every day is an absolute travesty. There’s more reform to be had regarding solitary, but in Rikers, there has already been some. There’s been a crackdown on corruption. Of course, there are still a lot of bad apples, but the new Commissioner [Joseph Ponte] has ushered in a new chapter. Mayor de Blasio, to his credit, has taken on a very ugly place that, for example, Bloomberg did nothing about.
Bloomberg’s decision to ignore what was happening on the island led to a rife and overflowing problem. Essentially, Kalief was tapping into the height of all that. Kalief was going into Rikers at the height of the abuse. The DOJ was doing a report on the jail at the same time. It was also the height of stop and frisk. The year after Kalief went to Rikers, there were 700,000 people stopped in NYC. It was the height of the practice. Practices like solitary confinement emerge out of mass incarceration and out of the drug war. That was the original surge in prison population. We started to lock everybody for everything. Jailers viewed solitary as a way to handle that population. We’ve completely lost our way. It’s insane. Kalief became a poster child for that insanity.
And for bail reform.
We need to get rid of cash bail. It is an absolute war on the poor. It has nothing to do with the pre-trial process and someone being a flight risk. If you are a person who is alleged to have committed a violent crime and has committed other violent crimes in the past, then you should probably be kept in a pre-trail detention facility. If you’re not violent, then you should not be given a fee to pay that benefits the bail bonds industry. It is an economy. It should tell you something that the bail bonds industry lobbies tens of millions of dollars to get judges to send people through with higher bails.
Regarding solitary, even with the ban, numbers are self-reported by the jails. Officials circumnavigate the political stigma of solitary by calling it something else.
Absolutely. You want to know the greatest bellwether for something like that? Suicide reporting. If you were to get the raw numbers as to how many attempted suicides there are at Rikers Island, your head would spin. They call it different things. They call it goal-oriented behavior. If someone uttered “I need to get out of here” a week before they tried to commit suicide, then that is not a suicide attempt. That is goal-oriented behavior. Officials would say that person was just doing it to get out solitary. Kalief attempted suicide four times on Rikers Island. Three of those times, he did not receive any mental help services. He was put back into solitary confinement.
And here’s another level of corruption: Because of the collusion of the health services provider who is under contract with the county to provide health services, all they are doing is essentially violating their Hippocratic oath and doing nothing for the patient. These should not be inmates to them. They should be patients to them. There is a whole level of shit. Falsifying of documents is at the heart of everything that is wrong with these systems. Of course they are going to juke the numbers. Everybody falsifies the documents. The NYPD has been falsifying stats for years. All of these agencies falsify documents. That’s why prosecutors do what they do. They want those stats.
When you make something competitive, everybody wants to win. That’s part of the problem of where we are at as a country. We have these competitive models when we are dealing with human life. So, statistics in arrests are competitive. Jail statistics are competitive. Health services providers’ ability to limit suicide attempts is competitive. It all leads to lying, falsification of documents and corruption and collusion. It’s a very dark ecosystem.
Rikers has also begun to look for alternatives to solitary. It was recently revealed that they’re using restraint desks to punish adolescents. Individual are shackled to a desk with leg irons for hours at a time.
It’s slavery by a different name. We’ve acknowledged that for almost decades now, but it is only recently being popularized by the great work of the documentary 13th. Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow has been out now for a while. Slavery by Another Name has been out for a while too. This has been right in front of us for years.
What do you see as the major sources of pushback to reform?
There are a lot of different things. The governor himself pointed out that in every attempt for reform at the state level, he reaches a deadlock because of Republican leaders whose constituents are in these towns that have state correctional facilities. They stop it from happening. For example, if we were to raise the age—which is one of the biggest reforms on the table—If you were to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 in New York, you’re going to eliminate thousands of thousands of children from the penal system.
There are folks that do not want those beds to be empty. It’s not that jails and prisons in New York are privatized. But there’s an ecosystem to incarceration and an industry around exploiting the poor. Whether it’s the bail bonds industry, whether it’s the Corrections Officers Benevolent Association, whether it’s the contract that the house services hold in some of the facilities upstate—all these people lobby for more inmates.
“It makes their pockets deeper and thicker. That’s the problem: if it didn’t make people money, then it wouldn’t matter. People are getting in the way of reform when it comes to mass incarceration because they are addicted to the cash flow.”
That’s what we have to dissipate with pieces like this series. It’s every American’s responsibility to pay attention to local elections. Take a look at your local district attorney. Who is that person? What is their record? Take a look at the judges that you elect. Don’t think that the down ballot items are a joke. They’re not. They result in the tragedies like Kalief Browder. And Kalief Browder—black, brown, white, anything—could be your brother, your son, your friend. Your child. That’s the revelation that we need to have together.