I began watching this story out of curiosity. I had heard of Kalief Browder’s story through social media, and I remember the post speaking of his mental health declining after countless days in solitary confinement. I was more concerned with the effects of solitary confinement at the time. Solitary confinement is something that I’ve constantly researched in order to gain some insight. I’ve read a few fiction novels, scholarly articles, and articles written by journalists on the subject, but there’s nothing more informing than an interview of someone describing their experience. Also, every psychology major should be familiar with the Stanford Prison Experiment which also raises a few concerns about the prison system.
I was very touched by this documentary and I would like to place a trigger warning on it for obvious reasons.
TRIGGER WARNING: If you are triggered by any the following topics: suicide, self-harm and/or injustice, I encourage you to take a break from reading this blog post and reach out to someone you trust to process your feelings and thoughts. If you or someone you know is struggling and/or has been feeling suicidal, do not hesitate to call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. Representatives from the National Suicide Prevention Hotline are available 24/7. 1-800-273-8255
SPOILER ALERT: The following blog post contains spoilers from the Netflix series.
The documentary starts out by talking about Kalief’s childhood. Him and his siblings were adopted by his mother Venida Browder and her estranged husband. Kalief and his siblings were all children of “the System.” They were placed in Child Protective Services immediately due to their biological mother’s drug addiction, and later adopted by his mother Venida.
Kalief, 16, and a friend were walking home around 2am from a party that was 3 blocks away from Kalief’s home in the Bronx. As Kalief was walking home, a victim of a robbery that occurred a week prior panicked at the sight of the two men and contacted 911 identifying the two men as “the black guys that robbed” him. The documentary does not say what happened to the friend, but it shows how Kalief was taken into police custody and interrogated. At no point during this documentary did Kalief admit his guilt because this was simply a case of mistaken identity. The documentary showed how his older brother was convicted of a crime and his record had affected him negatively; Kalief did not want this for his life, so he decided to stand his ground and stand up for what was right. He knew he was innocent and there was a video camera where the robbery occurred. That video tape was never pulled and Kalief wouldn’t be exonerated until a few years later.
The documentary observes the life of Kalief Browder while being held at Riker’s Island. Riker’s Island is known for being one of the most notorious prisons in the New England region, with many qualities of the infamous Guantanamo Bay (a navel base in Cuba that holds and tortures terrorists). The documentary shows countless videos of Kalief Browder being jumped and kicked by guards and inmates for refusing to comply with “The Program.” The Program is said to be a ‘gang’ that the strongest and baddest inmates and correction officers use to extort their way through Riker’s Island. Basically, there was a ton of illegal activity going on there. Kalief refused to give up his commissary money, he would speak up when they were being starved or if their food was being laced with rat poison, he would speak up when the guards refused to let him shower for weeks at a time. He served 300 straight days in solitary confinement after being jumped by the other inmates at the age 17. This was only the beginning of many days spent in what he called “The Box” for speaking up for what’s right and not conforming to the illegal activity that could give him more time. By the end of his stay, Kalief had served over 800 days in solitary confinement. Even if he wasn’t innocent–someone stealing a backpack shouldn’t have endured the torture he experienced. I honestly wouldn’t wish the torture he experienced on anyone. I can’t even tell you the half of it in one blog post.
Kalief Browder spent three years at Riker’s Island for a crime that he ‘allegedly’ committed, which was stealing a backpack. The prosecutors continued to delay his trial with claims that they would be ready in “one week.” The documentary speaks about the backlog of cases within the Bronx’s court system, and how for three years Kalief stood in front of several judges who continuously adjourned his case. It wasn’t until the last judge recognized that the case had been adjourned continuously and demanded a trial. The prosecutors were forced to admit that their victim and witness had relocated to Mexico and could not be reached. Kalief was then released back into society with no explanation, no transition assistance…only a metro card.
Kalief recorded several personal interviews that showed him being this driven young man who was determined not to let anyone break him, not even the system. He had began seeing a counselor and taking medication for the psychotic symptoms he developed while being kept in solitary confinement.
His family described the darkest moments with Kalief that we didn’t get to see on camera. Anyone dealing with mental illness knows how to put on “the smile” so that the world can be easily fooled. Only the ones closest to us can see what happens when the sun goes down and the blinds are closed. His mother and sister speak of times where he was in his room talking to bottles that he had lined up as if they were people. They spoke of times that he had urinated on his bedroom floor and was just delusional. He was not the Kalief we saw on the interviews. He was suffering. The urination part really hit home to me because I know that involuntary urination in adulthood can be caused by trauma. Kalief was traumatized from his experiences and became very paranoid. He decided to file a lawsuit, which required him to expose a lot of illegal activity that put the careers of many important people at risk, EVERYONE…district attorneys, correction officers, judges, etc. His mental health was already deteriorating from his stay at Riker’s, his life outside of Riker’s was just as triggering.
He was ambitious by day and suicidal by night. He wasn’t only fighting the demons of mental illness that was developed at Riker’s, he was also fighting the demons in his community because of the public attention he received. He was admitted to the psychiatric ward at least twice following his stay at Riker’s.
I believe the documentary mentioned that he attempted suicide several times while incarcerated and was beaten for each attempt. He attempted suicide one time after being released, and his second attempt post-incarceration was a success.
Kalief had fought long and hard. Despite referring to himself has “cursed,” Kalief showed an exceptional amount of bravery and stayed committed to his purpose. He came across many that were accusatory and doubted the truth of his story–which I’ve dealt with personally–it is a terrible feeling and often makes you want to give up and give in. Kalief was 22-years old when he died.
The story ends with his mother speaking of her congestive heart failure. All of Kalief’s siblings gather together at a hospital in the Bronx to be there for the mother that raised them. Throughout the documentary, Venida speaks about her previous heart attacks and how she just wants to be with her son again. Venida dies towards the end of the documentary being filmed. Venida also fought long and hard.
I hope this story encourages everyone to stand up for what is right, and demand justice in all things. This could’ve easily been my son. There are many Kaliefs out there who are innocent. They are victims of the system, and they are being tortured by the people we are supposed to trust.
I was able to be strong through this documentary, but I completely lost in on the last episode. I knew that Kalief committed suicide, but the moments leading up to it really hit home for me and reminded me of the things I’ve been through. Nothing I’ve been through can compare to the torture Kalief endured, NOTHING…but this is a fight, a fight for all of us.
And we must conquer it together.