Everyone Must Watch Time: The Kalief Browder Story

Image via Spike.
Image via Spike.

Seven years ago, a 16-year-old boy named Kalief Browder was plucked off Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, after being misidentified as a suspect in the theft of a backpack. Though he denied wrongdoing, he was taken to Rikers Island after a brief interrogation. There, he was held without trial for three years despite having never been convicted. Most of that time was spent in solitary confinement. He was finally released in 2013, but by all accounts he was irrevocably changed. On June 7, 2015, at the age of 22, Kalief Browder died by suicide.


The injustice of his experience was famously chronicled in a New Yorker story by Jennifer Gonnerman, as one example of how the common injustices inflicted upon black and brown kids in New York City can and will upend promising futures: the racial profiling upon which stop-and-frisk is based, and the devaluation of humanity required to create the school-to-prison pipeline, which particularly preys on impoverished communities. Browder was, by all accounts, a lively and smart kid who was destroyed by the carceral state. One of the many tragic aspects of his story is that his bail was set at $3000, initially far too much for his family to afford.

Since the world learned of Kalief Browder, he’s been held up as a perfect example of the need for prison reform, particularly in the case of minors, but his story has not been quite so painfully, and painstakingly, told as in Time: The Kalief Browder Story. Written and directed by Jenner Furst, whose narrative skills are as sharp and unflinching as they need to be, the first episodes of the six-part documentary series are profoundly difficult to watch—and yet because we are able to see through CCTV what Browder actually endured, there’s a sense of necessity attached: it feels urgent to bear witness.

In the first episode, after footage of Browder in the interrogation room—just 16, fresh-faced, unwavering and calm in his proclamations of innocence—Jay Z appears; he and Roc Nation acted as producers on the project, but in this capacity he is being interviewed as Browder’s friend. It is telling, perhaps, that here the superstar rapper is uncharacteristically soft and earnest, testament to the impact that knowing Browder had on him. “I believe our prophets come in many shapes and forms,” he says. “Sometimes our prophets come in the form of young, undeveloped energy that will teach all us grown-ups to love better and have more compassion. And Kalief Browder was a prophet.”

Image via screenshot/Spike.
Image via screenshot/Spike.

This is not just a grand proclamation by a man prone to boasts but something that, if you do not believe it now, will come to believe to be true. But more importantly, as Time subtly reminds us throughout its first two episodes, Kalief Browder was, in essence, a child. At a screening Tuesday night in New York City, Kalief’s older brother Akeem beseeched viewers to remember that Kalief and all the teenagers currently incarcerated at Rikers Island are “just kids.” Kalief Browder was a kid when he was arrested. He was a kid as he sat in the interrogation room with his friend, also accused, but no lawyer. He was a kid when he was taken to prison and thrown into a population where survival requires physicality. And Browder was a kid when we see security footage of him being brutally beaten in Rikers by fellow kids. (We see one adult on camera: a corrections officer who observes but does nothing to stop the brawl, as she casually leans against a wall.) They are teenagers caught in a system of poverty and institutionalized racism that sees them not as adolescents but, instead, as “animalescents,” as they were sometimes referred to in prison. The inhumanity is grotesque.

“Where were the white prisoners?” a young man, imprisoned at the same time as Browder, wonders in the second episode. They were not in Rikers, or if they were they were almost immediately released; footage reminds us that Dominique Strauss Kahn, the French former IMF head accused of raping an immigrant maid in his Manhattan hotel room, was released from jail after one day on $5 million bail; that was in May 2011, and by that time Browder had been imprisoned for a full year without a trial. It took Kalief’s mother, Venida, two weeks to scrape together the $900 she needed for a bail bondsman to free her son, but the bond was held due to probation violation. Browder had a prior felony—after being caught for joy-riding in a bread truck with a friend, a childlike infraction, he was put on probation for five years.


Time is an especially demanding documentary, and that’s why it is so exceptionally important; in its first two episodes, it takes us through each step of Kalief’s life, with a style that cuts between his own words—as stated in the 2015 deposition he gave in his lawsuit against the city for constitutional rights violations—and one single interview filmed in what seems to be Midtown New York.

In the interview, he wears a leather Pelle Pelle jacket and sits on a concrete step; he is shy about discussing his ordeal, stopping when someone walks by, but also with eyes that are assessing, that have seen too much. He is 21, but says he feels like he is 40, prematurely aged from what he endured. He seems quiet and sweet, and in particular mentions the people around him in business suits, reiterating that he would, one day, like to “be like them.” We’re reminded again that he would never grow up to do so in shots of his mother Venida, now deceased, speaking lovingly about him in past tense.


Ava DuVernay’s essential The 13th addressed Browder’s trajectory in its brilliant assessment of the history of the school-to-prison pipeline, and the way the current carceral state is rooted unequivocally in the history of slavery. With Time, this historical foundation is even more impactful because it chronicles the lived experiences of not just Browder but so many people suffering under the nation’s unjust prison system, even in supposedly liberal strongholds like New York City. It is very likely one of the most devastating documents I have ever seen, and one of the most important: It seems impossible to watch this and not want to take action.


Time: the Kalief Browder Story begins airing tonight at 10/9c on Spike TV.


Giovanni McFarlane Fitzpatrick

I can say from a rather short experience that solitary confinement is torture in every way but name.

I was picked up on an outstanding warrant, having just left a rehab facility for a variety of issues (drug and alcohol abuse, major depressive disorder, etc.), and was taken to my local jail. I was in an already distressed mood, so when I was being processed, I was told that it might be best for me to go into what they termed “psychological observation”. They said it wasn’t general population, but I’d have contact with their psychologists and psychiatrists, and that it would be best for someone in my state. Not knowing any better, I agreed.

I had to strip naked, and was given a “protective” suicide vest that barely covered my genitals (I’m near 6'4", and the bottom edge just barely hit mid-thigh). Even though this was in Florida, it was still a concrete and cement prison, so it was quite chilly. I was then taken to my quarters, when I knew something was wrong.

We were in single, solitary cells. Stone bed with a barely inch-thick piece of padding. No covers, no shoes, nothing in which you could harm yourself. No reading materials, no pencils, no pens, nothing to occupy your mind. A steel toilet, a dirty sink, and a tiny-skylight in the upper corner, and light was fading fast.

My padding was folded, and when I attempted to unfold it, in order to lay down, I found it was covered in urine and feces. The guards went around the individual cells every 15 minutes or so, and when the guard came around, I asked if I could please have another pad so that I could at least sit down. He blew me off with a casual “yeah, whatever,” and went about his business. The various guards repeated this for another 4+ hours until I was finally moved to another cell entirely.

In this new cell, I was placed between a guy who would holler at the top of his lungs for 20 minutes straight, a cell which had to be physically cleaned of urine and feces (and a smell which permeated into my own), and numerous other gentlemen in various states of insanity making noises familiar to a howler monkey, or an enemy combatant undergoing sensory deprivation in order to interrogate them, but certainly not a person who was put in “psychological observation” for their own good.

Combine all of those things, with the increasingly cool temperatures (even in Tampa, nighttime in a cement prison means low temperatures) and the lack of any covering besides the same green suicide vest (I was not allowed even boxers or socks to wear) meant that this was the most uncomfortable period of my life. Attempts to sleep were interrupted by the blood-curdling yells and screams of men who had presumably been locked in their cells for multiple weeks, months, and even years, yet I realized that I was precariously close to breaking, and I could imagine how any person could break in this situation. Having been in gen pop before, I deeply regretted not speaking up and saying that I was fine with gen pop.

Thankfully, I only had one day in “psychological observation” before I was moved to gen pop, and only one day further before I was released. However, it pains me to read this story, because even after that 1 day, I was questioning my own sanity, and wondering if my desire to live could survive my desire to die, just to be rid of the situation I found myself in, through no particular fault of my own.

Solitary confinement, specifically in cases like these, is truly the last bastion of legalized torture, and as much as we, rightfully so, rail against methods of capital punishment, the fact that people who have not yet been convicted of a crime can be subject to what is not just a loss of freedom, but is a punishment without conviction in and of itself, is something that needs to be reformed. We can’t allow these injustices to continue, and to see the loss of otherwise worthwhile lives continue.

I feel for Mr. Browder, and his family, and any other person confined to solitary without cause, and I think that more people should really do some research into what solitary confinement actually entails.