The great facade of America

 Recapping “Time: The Kalief Browder Story” on Netflix

By Dina Usanovic

Recently, I watched a documentary on Netflix entitled “Time: The Kalief Browder Story.” This 6 episode series has incensed and severely disillusioned me to the truth about our great nation. America is described as the land of the free, the greatest democracy in the world. Why, then, was a 16-year-old kid from the Bronx subject to torture, beatings, and 3 years in Hell over a backpack?

Kalief Browder was arrested in 2010 when he was 16 when a man accused him of stealing his backpack. First, the robbery occurred a few days ago, then it was a few weeks ago. The victim could not keep his story straight, and the police asked the victim pointed questions, such as “isn’t this the guy that robbed you?” 

Although the victim could not provide an accurate timeline and the police asked leading questions, Browder was arrested and given a $3,000 bail, an amount that no family from the Bronx could accrue. As New York law stated that 16 was the age of adulthood in the criminal courts, Browder was sent to Rikers Island to await his trial.

Rikers Island was full of gangs and corrupt correctional (CO) officers. COs would often smuggle in drugs, alcohol, and other contraband for members of the Program, a gang that basically ran the jail, in exchange for money. Because the COs were effectively part of the Program, they allowed the gang members to constantly beat up other inmates. Because Browder did not want to sacrifice his morals or values by joining the gang and having to do what they told him to, he abstained from “getting with the program,” and was subject to daily beatings and abuse.

Browder spent three years awaiting a trial- with several infractions on his Eighth Amendment rights to non-excessive bail and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, along with his Sixth Amendment rights to a speedy and public trial. He spent nearly two years in solitary confinement. 

After Browder’s imprisonment, former President Barack Obama banned the use of solitary confinement on juveniles and the United Nations (UN) has declared that 15 or more days in solitary confinement is a form of torture. The UN specifically cited the United States Department of Corrections’ overuse of solitary confinement as a form of punishment as a major issue when announcing this change. 

After 3 unnecessary years and an eternity of trauma, Browder’s case was dropped- after 31 court appearances and 9 different judges- due to the lack of a witness and he was released from prison.

Upon his release, Browder and his family sued New York City for the torture he endured while imprisoned and the infringement on his Sixth and Eighth Amendment rights. They also did many interviews on national television to get his story out to the public. The city attempted to absolve themselves of responsibility by placing the blame on Browder himself. However, Browder’s family eventually won the lawsuit in 2019, with a settlement of $3.3 million. 

Unfortunately, Browder’s life never returned to normal. Multiple people in his neighborhood began jumping him because they believed he had money after the television appearances and interviews, and many other people avoided him, as he now had a target on his back. His new normal, paired with the trauma and mental health issues that resulted from his time in prison, led to his suicide in 2015.

So many aspects of our justice system failed Kalief Browder. As a young black man, he was subject to a “Stop and Frisk”, in which police officers in New York could stop anyone on the street (though victims were predominately non-white) and frisk them for drugs and weapons. Because of this, he was not surprised to be stopped on the street and taken to jail. 

Furthermore, the excessively high bail amount ensured he would not be released from Rikers Island until his trial. The Department of Corrections failed him when they turned a blind eye to the dangerous gang that beat him up every day in jail and did not step in to save him. The court system failed him when they pushed his trial back over and over until he had been in jail for 3 years. In fact, it might be more accurate to say that we actively ruined him. 

The sad part is that this is happening all over the country to millions of people.It is our job to step in, to bring awareness to this issue and reform the system that killed Kalief Browder and has ruined so many innocent lives.