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'Time' tells the terrifying story of Kalief Browder's unjust incarceration

by John Horn and Monica Bushman | The Frame

Footage of 16-year-old Kalief Browder's questioning on May 15, 2010 from the documentary series "Time: The Kalief Browder Story." Courtesy of Spike

In 2010, at the age of 16, Kalief Browder was arrested in New York for allegedly stealing a backpack.

He was charged with robbery, grand larceny and assault and taken to the notorious Rikers Island jail complex.

Kalief Browder.
Kalief Browder.

Browder maintained his innocence and refused to accept a plea bargain. Unable to make the $3,000 bail, he remained locked up. Because of numerous trial delays, Browder would eventually spend three years at Rikers, much of it in solitary confinement.

When the charges were eventually dropped and Browder was released in 2013, he emerged with obvious signs of mental illness. Two years later, on June 6, 2015, Browder took his own life.

The new documentary series, “TIME: The Kalief Browder Story,” puts his life and death in a broader context.

The six-part Spike TV series was written and directed by Jenner Furst. Furst also serves as an executive producer, along with Shawn "JAY-Z" Carter and Harvey Weinstein:

Furst spoke with The Frame host John Horn about his approach to Kalief Browder’s story.

Interview highlights:

On why he wanted to tell Browder's story:

Kalief's story was in the news from 2013 on in New York City. It was in the local news and became a national story with The New Yorker article that was written by Jennifer Gonnerman. And that story affected me very deeply. But it wasn't until Kalief passed that the story became a lot more urgent for us. And we all began discussing how we could do something that would truly immortalize this young man's life, allow for his experience to transcend the evening news and the sort of coverage that disappears all too quickly. We knew that a longer-form story about Kalief Browder was the only way to truly respect and honor his life, because so much had happened to him and so much of it is emblematic of the broken system that affects millions of Americans. 

On the criminal justice reforms that were brought about by Kalief's unjust incarceration and confinement

I don't think [the reforms] excuse this horrible tragedy that he endured, but I do believe that everything happens for a reason and I do believe that in his passing, the significance of his life and his prophecy has risen to a new level that has been able to affect change in such a profound way. When we started this series, 16-year-olds were treated as adults in New York state, there was no speedy trial reform on the table that meant anything, juveniles were still going to solitary confinement at Rikers Island, [which] was operating as it had for years. When we finished the series, 16-year-olds are no longer treated as adults in New York state, the age of responsibility is 18, like the rest of the country, solitary confinement is illegal for juveniles at Rikers Island and, moreover, Rikers Island has been announced to be closed by the Mayor of New York City. But all that came at the human cost of Kalief Browder, his mother and millions of other Americans who have suffered silently through a system that is terribly reckless in devouring lives all across America.

On the flaws in the criminal justice system that made Browder's three-year incarceration possible:

It's a slow-motion train wreck for millions of Americans who are caught up in our system because the reality is, if you're indigent and you don't the money for good legal defense, and you have a public defender ... You know, public defenders are wonderful people. They've given their lives to the cause. But many times they're inundated with caseloads that are impossible to manage. And there's only so much they can do, there's only so much they can follow up on. I don't think Kalief's attorney at the time did the best he could do. That said, the whole situation is a losing equation. And the prosecutors are in a position where they can bully defendants into taking guilty pleas because the experience of waiting in jail for that amount of time is far more torturous than the idea of being a felon. So Kalief didn't believe in that and he sacrificed his entire life essentially for the concept of American liberty, of our Constitution. I mean he's a true American hero, and he paid the ultimate price for it.

To hear the full interview, click the blue player above.

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