The third episode of Spike TV's six-part docu-series Time: The Kalief Browder Story, which aired Wednesday night (March 15), detailed more of Browder's awful experiences in solitary confinement and its affects on his mental health. The show, produced by Jay Z and Harvey Weinstein, details the life and death of former Rikers Island inmate Kalief Browder, who was held at the infamous prison for three years without trial for allegedly stealing a backpack. After he was released, he committed suicide after struggling with anxiety and depression stemming from his incarceration.
The latest installment of the series also gave a brief look into Kalief's brother's time at Rikers Island and explored glaring issues within the New York justice system. Check out some important moments from episode 3 below.
Kalief Tried To Make The System Work For Him
Kalief was extremely resilient and demanded his day in court to prove his innocence. Even though they wanted him to plead guilty, he rejected the plea because he was not guilty. He refused to comply with the "rule" (more on this later) because he wanted to maintain his innocence and make the system work for him instead.
According to political commentator Van Jones, Kalief was the "last patriot standing" to right the wrongs of the criminal justice system, which had failed many young men of color over the years. "It doesn't mean that he's a perfect person, but the stand that he took was perfect," added Jones.
Kalief also appeared to have had a personal vendetta against the justice system because of a situation involving his brother Akeem. His brother was perceived to be a man known as the "Bronx Rapist" after a security camera caught him receiving oral sex behind his high school at the age of 15. Although this was a consensual act from a girl he was interested in, he fit the description of the "Bronx Rapist" and was arrested. Just like his brother years later, Akeem was arrested in the 48th precinct. The courts waited until he was 16 to give him an adult charge rather than a youth one. He plead guilty to one count of sodomy and spent three months on Rikers Island and five months in state prison. Akeem now has to register as a felon.
Emotional Strain Took A Toll On Venida Browder's Health
Come hell or high water, Venida Browder (Kalief's mother) wanted to be there for her son. The documentary says that she traveled to Rikers over 150 times to see her son. She would take several buses and subway trains to the prison, which she detailed as an all-day event that involved a lot of crying as well as physical and emotional strain. Mrs. Browder was not allowed to smile at her son during court dates, as he would be reprimanded for something as simple as smiling back.
"[I] tried to keep strong for my mom, it breaks me to see my mom cry like that," said Kalief. Venida's daughter Nicole said that she used to be "happy" and loved to sing with her girl group, before the stress of Akeem and Kalief's Rikers' stints affected her health. She suffered her first heart attack in 2000, and was subsequently diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Venida eventually succumbed to a heart attack and passed away on Oct. 14, 2016.
Every state in the United States has a law stating that if you're arrested, you have the right to be taken to trial after a certain number of days, but not in New York. N.Y. law states that the District Attorney must be ready within "x" number of days, and days are calculated excluding court delays. This is what is known as the "ready rule."
Scott Levy of the legal service The Bronx Defenders said that if there are no court rooms available during the new time period for a trial, and the courts adjourn the trial for three months, "those three months do not count against the clock." For example, Kalief was brought to court for the first time on Dec. 20, 2010. The D.A. said he was not ready for trial, and the date was pushed back a week. This went on for about six months.
"I feel like they're just playing with my life," said Kalief. Former Attorney General Eric Holder said that holding someone in solitary confinement without a pretrial hearing is "inconsistent with who we say we are as a nation."
The D.A. And Public Defenders Were Ineffective
Robert Johnson was the Bronx District Attorney at the time of Kalief's Rikers stint. Civil rights attorney James Meyerson suggested that Johnson was "corrupted" and "became lazy" by power."[He] refuses to acknowledge the problem and institute steps to address it," he continued.
The public defenders, who were hired to represent those who could not afford a private attorney were also ineffective. Kalief was unable to afford a private attorney, so he was given legal aid, which aims to serve the people in traditional and civil court cases. However, they are "publicly funded, understaffed and under-resourced."
Kalief's public defender was Brendan O'Meara, who his lawyer Paul Prestia said could have asserted more control when it came to helping his client. Kalief never really spoke to O'Meara, and O'Meara would send letters to Kalief's house reminding him about upcoming court dates, when Kalief wasn't home for three years. "Everything was just moving too slow," reflected Kalief.
More Hell In Solitary Confinement
Before Kalief was sent to solitary confinement, inmates told him stories about life in "the box," which frightened him. As he explained, the box is a 12 ft. by 8 ft. metal cage with a mattress, a sink and a toilet. There are mice and there is feces on the walls. His first extended stay in solitary was 300 days straight, at the age of 17. The United Nations defines any period longer than 15 days straight in solitary confinement as "torture."
A "ticket" was also given to inmates when they "acted up." The length of an inmate's stay in the box is based on the amount of tickets they get. Former Rikers social worker Mary Buser said that, at first, inmates have "determination" to withstand the box. However, that mental toughness wears away over time. Inmates begin to "lose their marbles," and are often diagnosed with chronic depression, sleep problems, heart palpitations and paranoia, among many other issues.
It is suggested that being in solitary confinement also had an affect on Kalief's brain development. Alex Dranovsky, a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University, said that the prefrontal cortex of our brains matures during adolescence. It's supposed to help combat fear and aggression, and since it wasn't fully developed in 17-year-old Kalief, solitary confinement may have "scrambled" its development. "I was trapped. I just needed a way out, but there was no way out," said Kalief. "I lost my childhood, I lost my sanity."
Corrections Officers Were Even Worse In Solitary
C.O.'s weren't built to deal with people who were going mad in solitary. Instead of taking their mental health into consideration, the guards believed that inmates were being defiant, not crying out for help.
Guards control how much food an inmate receives while in solitary confinement, and they would starve them if they thought they were being "smart." Kalief explained that he was often taunted by a guard named Heartz, who didn't let him shower for two weeks. The story of a Rikers inmate, Jerome Murdough, also showed that the guards were not attentive when it came to a mentally ill inmate. Murdough died in his sweltering, 101-degree solitary cell after a C.O. refused to check on him.
"I was falling apart mentally," said Kalief. "I was starting to feel suicidal and no one wanted to help me out… After a while, I had gave up hope."
He attempted suicide by hanging in solitary confinement in March of 2012. The guards watched him try to kill himself and did nothing (but encourage it) until it was nearly too late. However, he wasn't cut down right away, because the guards wanted him "to feel some pain first." They beat him up and stomped on him. Kalief is shown running into the hallways because he knew there were cameras that could capture the abuse he was being put through in solitary confinement.
"We drove Mr. Browder to psychosis," said the director of the ACLU's Center For Justice, Jeff Robinson. "We did that."