Spike TV’s six-part documentary, Time: The Kalief Browder Story, which came to end last week, likely left audiences new to the story of Bronx teen who spent three years at Rikers Island over the accusation that he had stolen a backpack with a cold ball of anger.
Produced by Jay-Z and airing on Spike TV, the documentary follows the story of Kalief Browder and his time at the New York City jail facility after being apprehended by police who suspected him of swiping the stolen backpack. His family was unable to pay the $3,000.00 bail to get him out, which led to Browder’s three-year stint behind bars, two of those years in solitary confinement.
The doc traces that time, weaving itself in and out of interview footage with Browder, his family and friends, various agents in the NYC criminal justice system, and occasional appearances from author Michelle Alexander (“The New Jim Crow”), Bryan Stevenson (“Just Mercy”) and Jay-Z.
The story takes viewers through the labyrinthine world of the criminal justice system, jumping from the courtroom and the Bronx streets to police precincts and beyond, and while sometimes disorienting, it provides a wealth of information, statistics and experiences from all the relevant players — the incarcerated, the attorneys, former correctional officers, the Browders, defendants, judges, and outside advocates — in a way that feels weighty and claustrophobic at times.
The documentary series gets the most mileage, though, out of Kalief’s story itself. The candid interviews with Browder walk the fine line of clarity and revisited trauma. And how could it not? Coupled with his on-camera testimony, The Kalief Browder Story intersperses security video from his time at Rikers, looping a horror film showing of the conditions in the prison, and most poignantly, how the horrors of that time dehumanized Browder over time.
At the forefront, there is the violence; the normalization of violence and subhuman standards at Rikers repeatedly stands out as you watch the ways that Browder was forced to survive despite the conditions that threatened to break him. The first is footage of Browder being brutally jumped by a group of inmates. You’re left feeling powerless watching as the then-teen is punched and slammed to the ground by a pack of boys. There are only two officers on-hand, and as the officers try to separate Browder and calm the remaining boys by placing Kalief in a separate room divided by a door, one of the inmates kicks the door open while the officers’ backs are turned, and the beating ensues again.
The second incident involves Rikers correctional officials. After spending an inordinate amount of time in solitary confinement, Kalief gradually began succumbing to a common condition: suicide. The incident is aided by Kalief’s own chilling details as he speaks about how he fashioned a noose out of his bedsheets, looping them at a height so that he could hang himself.
It doesn’t work, though, and the attention he gets is in the form of two security guards who first coldly watch Browder hanging in his cell while tries to kill himself, and then, once they decide enough is enough, pull him down, drag him out of the solitary confinement cell, and begin to beat him. The beating goes on for minutes, and as a viewer, you’re infuriated, helpless and disgusted watching 17 year-old Kalief, a diminutive five-foot-five 130-pound teenager, get beaten — on tape — by two grown men officers.
Against the background of this silent-film video, we’re greeted with Browder’s post-release testimony about his time at Rikers, shown in full-color and sound. Browder’s on-camera interviews are often hard to watch; he’s a great, raw storyteller, and you can tell his accounts about his treatment and trials in the system were still fresh and vibrant for him at the time.
The interviews loop: Browder talks about resisting the guilty plea, going to another delayed court date, heading back to Rikers, getting beaten, and then the back to the top again. His family and friends relay a similar cycle of being in touch with him, getting their hopes up about release, hearing it won’t go to trial, him going away again, and so forth. When Browder finally does make it out of prison, it comes after countless beatings, extended time in solitary confinement and four suicide attempts.
Browder would, in total, spend 300 days in solitary confinement, a criminal exacerbation of the United Nations findings that concludes that anything over 15 days is unhealthy. The same UN study that cited the 15-days limit also noted that America incarcerates about 20,000 to 25,000 persons in solitary confinement. The Kalief Browder Story takes some tangential moments to look at the effects of solitary confinement on people, showing images of men balancing razor blades on their tongue; frantically pacing and beating themselves between prison walls; and screaming into the window panes of their cell doors.
As one man is pulled from his cell, the floor inside looks like the inside of a slaughterhouse, matted and smeared with blood. In the same stretch, we’re also told about the smearing of human waste on the walls, the prisoners and at times on the guards themselves as inmate after inmate breaks from being cut off from human connection for unhealthy stretches of time. It’s during this stretch of the series that one person remarks that solitary confinement is “like dying with your eyes wide open.”
The Kalief Browder Story, while anchored around Browder’s story, shows the failing of a consciously broken system and the lopsided ways it continues to consume everyone it touches. While the toll the system takes on everyone is varied, there’s no denying there’s an effect. It would be easy to make this documentary only about the formally imprisoned, but it provokes you enough to wonder about the impact such conditions have on the powers that be.
One such study gives some insight. A 2011 study conducted by clinical research non-profit Desert Waters Correctional Outreach found that correctional officers suffer PTSD at a rate of 34 percent versus the 14 percent among military veterans, and a New Jersey police task force found that correction officers’ suicide rate is twice as high as police and the general public. The system is literally killing everyone inside.