'Time: The Kalief Browder Story' Depicts Issues With Solitary Confinement

Mar 4, 2017
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally today, in recent years, we've heard a number of stories about the ways the criminal justice system has failed someone or some people. It's always painful, and it's always troubling. But it's particularly troubling when the person at the center of the story is someone young, someone whose life is changed by a broken system before his or her life has even really begun.

Now a new documentary tells such a story in excruciating detail over six parts. The series is about a high-profile case out of New York City. It's called "Time: The Kalief Browder Story," and it profiles the life of 16-year-old Kalief Browder who was arrested and accused of stealing a backpack back in 2010 when he was on his way home from a party in the Bronx.

He wound up spending more than three years in the notorious Rikers Island jail complex, much of it in solitary confinement before the charges were dropped. His family went public with his story, and his case became a cause.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Kalief Browder.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Kalief Browder.

(CROSSTALK)

MARTIN: But the experience destroyed Kalief. He committed suicide less than a year later after his release. The six-part documentary premiered on Spike TV earlier this week, and the series director Jenner Furst joined us in our New York bureau to talk about it. And I started by asking him why Kalief's story struck such a chord.

JENNER FURST: You know, there's this horrible, tragic thing happening, and, you know, the instantaneous loss of life in a gunshot or in, you know, a horrible incident that's captured on video. And in talking with Kalief's mother, Venida, you know, she lamented about the fact that people don't understand, you know, my son was killed over years. He was murdered, and it's just different.

And, you know, I would listen to her, and, of course, I would empathize because he really was. And it wasn't just one moment in time. It was time itself. It was his whole life as a young, black man growing up in the Bronx. And he really was a child of the system, born into foster care because his mother had a drug addiction, went to failing schools, was a victim of stop and frisk many times.

And he went to Rikers Island which was, you know, notorious for abuse, corruption, gangs, you know, an uncontrolled amount of violence. In his story, there was everything. And we were dealing with something so poignant and so focused that all we had to do was let his story rise to the surface, and viewers could see it.

MARTIN: Just to let people know in part what you're talking about here. I mean, one of the - he was stopped along with a friend. The friend was allowed to go home. He thought he was going to be allowed to go home, but part of the reason that he wasn't, that he was sent to Rikers is that he was on probation for an earlier incident.

And just to - just describe a little bit of what you're talking about, I want to play a short clip from the film where he talks about how he felt about what that Rikers experience was like. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TIME: THE KALIEF BROWDER STORY")

KALIEF BROWDER: When they sent me to Rikers Island, I was 16. I would say it was like hell on Earth. Sometimes, you know, I feel like I'm never going to be the same. You know, I smile, and I joke a lot. But, you know, deep down, I'm a mess because like I'm 21, and on the inside I feel like I'm 40.

MARTIN: One of the things that the film does is make it graphically clear what it is that he's talking about when he talks about it being hell on Earth, and some of that footage was obtained, as I understand it, by Jennifer Gonnerman at The New Yorker who reported extensively on this. Can you just describe, though, for people who have not seen it what exactly he's talking about?

FURST: The security camera footage that Jennifer Gonnerman was able to acquire a portion of and release through The New Yorker - we acquired the remainder of it - and essentially it depicts an environment of chaos and violence unchecked by corrections officers and, at one instance, violence at the hands of correctional officers.

In one of the videos, Kalief is shown being slammed down on the ground for just appearing to do nothing more than talking back to a corrections officer. He's shackled behind his back, and, you know, it's scenes like this that really bring to light the type of chaos that happens on Rikers Island.

MARTIN: The film explores a number of issues. I mean, the fact that he was kept at Rikers for three years without ever facing a trial. But why - you think - is solitary confinement such a big issue? And why did that part of it become such an important part of the story?

FURST: Well, I think that's the most horrific thing of all. We're doing things to people that we do not even allow to be done to animals in testing. Animal rights groups have done a lot of activism to stop housing in isolation for animals in laboratories. Now, we find that to be a cause, yet there's millions of Americans in extreme isolation. The United Nations has ruled more than 15 days straight as torture.

Just to contextualize, when Kalief was 17 years old and his first extended stay in solitary confinement, he stayed over 300 days. He was a child. His brain wasn't even developed yet, and we know from testing that that type of experience can cause permanent brain damage. The experience of being incarcerated is traumatic enough to think that he would be in a self, you know, 9 by 12 for 23 hours a day at times being denied recreation and at times being denied food. He was starved on multiple occasions.

For a young man, for a child to have that happen to them, it's absolutely horrific had they even been convicted of a crime. But the most shocking thing in Kalief Browder's story is that he wasn't convicted of a crime. You know, folks don't understand jail is different than prison. These folks haven't been convicted of a crime yet. They're awaiting their day in court, yet we're torturing them, and we're doing it to children. So it made Kalief's story so poignant and so much an example of the system not working and the system essentially destroying people and their families.

MARTIN: I understand that you're also (unintelligible) appreciative of Spike TV for giving you the time to tell the story in the way that you wanted to tell it. But I - Spike TV has not traditionally been known for producing this kind of documentary or featuring this kind of documentary.

In fact, I understand that in an earlier discussion around the film, it has been raised that one of the network's current staple programs is "Cops" which some have criticized for kind of glorifying this kind of macho image of policing, which would seem at odds with the picture that your series presents. And, you know, I say that as a person who comes from a policing family. I have six police officers in my family, so I don't say that from a position of hostility. But the fact is there are...

FURST: Sure.

MARTIN: ...Those who would question why is this the place to present this particular work?

FURST: For me as a filmmaker, I've had the great honor of working on a couple docu-series that we're tackling real issues in America, and the viewership was there. But Spike has access to a hundred million homes and has bravely gotten behind the message of this series which is criminal justice reform, has been unafraid and hasn't sanitized a single thing that we've been trying to do. So to me, that's about the biggest megaphone that you can get.

To answer your question about "Cops," as a filmmaker, I view that as an opportunity, too. If you have viewers sort of lulled away by a violent depiction of our inner cities and policing and sort of the inequality in our system, and then all of a sudden they get slapped in the face with something like "Time: The Kalief Browder Story," that's a moment right there. That's a chance to change someone's perspective about something that they may have previously been confused about.

And now they get to see the human being behind that occurrence. They get to see their mother. They get to see their family, and they get to see the collateral damage that an encounter like that with the police can cause. So I find this to be an incredibly educational moment for all Americans, even those who watch and are entertained by "Cops." And I'm very grateful for the opportunity.

MARTIN: That's Jenner Furst. He's the director of the new documentary miniseries "Time: The Kalief Browder Story." The first of six parts premiered this week on Spike TV. It will be airing Wednesday nights going forward. And Jenner Furst was kind enough to join us from our studios in New York City. Jenner Furst, thanks so much for speaking with us.

FURST: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.