Jennifer Gonnerman is a staff writer for The New Yorker. In 2014 she profiled Kalief Browder, a Bronx man who had spent more than 1,000 days in Rikers Island penitentiary while awaiting trial for charges relating to a stolen backpack.
The reasons for Browder's prolonged incarceration were difficult to articulate. While in prison, Browder was beaten both by fellow prisoners and a Rikers Island prison guard. He spent long stretches in solitary confinement. After Browder was released he returned to his family, earned his high school degree, and entered community college. He also grew increasingly paranoid. Earlier this month, Browder committed suicide.
Gonnerman joined Boston Public Radio Wednesday to talk about Kalief Browder, Rikers Island, and how Browder's case is a clarion call for prison reform.
Questions below are paraphrased, and Gonnerman's answers are edited where noted [...].
When Kalief Browder was awaiting trial on Rikers Island, his court-appointed attorney kept telling him to take a plea deal, including one that could’ve let him go free.
He said, ‘No, I'm not doing it, I'm not pleading guilty.’ And it was that insistence on a right to a trial, which we all have, that kept him in.
He believed he was innocent?
He had become a little bit of a symbol for the fight for bail reform. [...] He wasn't kept there for three years because he couldn't afford bail. […] They also had a violation of probation on him [for another minor matter], so they kind of put a hold on his case and the judge withdrew the bail. [...] There was no bail for those almost three years that he spent locked up.
He was only 16 when he entered Rikers Island, yet he stayed locked up that long?
A lot of the aspects of this case make no sense. [...] New York state and also North Carolina are where 16- and 17-year-olds [can be tried as adults]. That's why Kalief ended up in the adult system, and why he ended up on Rikers Island.
The severity of crimes doesn’t always factor into whether someone who is incarcerated gets placed in solitary confinement.
It's almost unfathomable, but in fact, when they make decisions about which inmates they put in solitary confinement it doesn't have to do with [the severity of the crime].
He was locked up in the adolescent jail on Rikers Island, which last fall was the subject of a blistering report. [...] We likened it to Lord of the Flies. [...] Either join the gang, or be pummeled by others. […] Kalief always told me, 'I wasn't in a gang, I was always by myself. I didn't have any friends.'
When you found out he had committed suicide, how did that affect you?
Like everybody who knew him, I'm extremely upset. […] After he got out of jail [the first time] he got his G.E.D., he was enrolled in Bronx Community College. [...] Here was a young man who was trying to do the right thing, he was trying to have a normal life and achieve his goals, yet all the psychological [trauma] was too much.
Do you think being incarcerated for so long had a debilitating psychological effect?
He was struggling all the time with the demons, and the nightmares, and the flashbacks, [...] and yet despite all that he managed to find his way into college, and to do well. [...] In his last semester he actually wrote a paper — somebody sent it to me — it was about solitary confinement.
Do you see signs that things are changing in New York, both on Rikers Island and more generally in terms of juvenile detention?
Mayor DeBlasio has been taking sort of a vicious criticism about Rikers Island and the conditions there. […] It seems that Kalief is now at the center of [many] different policy debates.
Will Browder's death impact our debate on prisons, juvenile detention and solitary confinement?
I certainly see more conversation, debate, and more movement and potential action than we have had in many years. [...] Hillary Clinton did give a speech about mass incarceration [...] not too long ago. At the same time, the amount of time that it's going to take to dismantle our prison-industrial complex is considerable. [We have] more than 2 million people locked up, some for extraordinarily long sentences.