The Kalief Browder Docuseries Builds a Clear Case for Prison Abolition
State violence does not only show up as false arrests and physical harm. State violence is also the unwillingness of the State to rehabilitate those that are impacted by it’s terrorizing reach.
Throughout each part of Time: The Kalief Browder Story we have seen instances of violence and heard stories of prison authorities’ misconduct that enabled and encouraged more violence against incarcerated young people. When problems on the inside of prisons so strongly mirror the problems in the outside world, it becomes hard to pinpoint where the problems of violence and racism start and end. Yet, Kalief Browder’s story thus far has shown us that there is no end as long as police accountability and true rehabilitation are undermined to uphold social order.
On May 15, 2010, Browder was 16 years old when he was sent to the Rikers Island detention center for adolescents after being accused of stealing a backpack he did not take. Each part of this sentence spells out something that is undeniably wrong.
The Story of Kalief Browder, a six-part series backed by Jay Z which airs on SpikeTV, moves the prison industrial complex and the school-to-prison pipeline from theory to reality when we are faced with the humans that have been impacted by it the most. In Part 1, author Michelle Alexander describes it for what it is, “the system that failed him every step of the way”.
Throughout the series, Browder describes in past video recordings how mentally taxing his stay was at Rikers Island. In Part 2, Kalief gave some insight as to why. “Right and wrong is weird in here. What’s right to them isn’t right, and what’s wrong isn’t wrong,” Browder said.
One person who was incarcerated with Kalief explained how they were referred to as “animalescents”, coloring them as savage and inhumane. The environment of this detention center only encouraged the dehumanizing of those inside of it.
“I’m in a negative environment. This is how I survive,” said Turray Bynum, a former inmate with Browder featured in Part 2, “By catching infractions, by fighting, by slashing, by jumping, by being jumped.” Statements like this, about survival in a constant struggle to exist, can easily be used to describe the neighborhood environments that many of the prison population come from.
Also shared in Part 2 is that “The majority of people in Rikers are there because they can’t pay $1,000 or less” on their bail or bond. Rikers is actually a complex of 14 different jails, the difference between jails and prisons being that “jails hold people who are being held before sentencing and those with sentences of less than one year.” Browder’s case was neglected and he was held there for three years.
In today’s America, the concepts of right and wrong are in serious question. The masses of people in this country experience some form of oppression at the hands of local, national, and federal government entities and institutions. To us – the majority – this is wrong, and to the State it is often framed as right in order to uphold “democracy”, a code word that can be interchangeably used with social order and in many cases capitalism. The creed of equality that America stands on contrasts heavily with her practices and those that hold the most power define what is right and wrong at the expense of the marginalized.
Historically, law and order has been in place to protect the interests of American whites. To help us begin wrapping our minds around the violence and sustainability of a place like Rikers Island, Browder’s story introduced us to it’s namesake, Richard Riker who’s time as the Chief Magistrate of the New York City court system encouraged “A web of bounty hunting rings, kidnapping of escaped slaves. Even children were kidnapped and sold into slavery.”
The modern day prison system, overpopulated by Black and Brown folks, and it’s evolution from slavery is not news. Browder’s story has further illuminated how power and a social order are preserved by violence, both inside and outside of prisons. The ideas of law and order, the idea of bad guys and good guys, wars on drugs and crime enforced by the State have only implied that some of us (a.k.a. non-whites) are inherently bad and need to be put away, rather than actually helping humanity.
It is also not news anymore that prison and jail populations around the country are overrepresented by Black and Brown prisoners that come from impoverished neighborhoods with lower quality schools, a lack of resources, and continual divestment. People are then forced to get it how they live and their survival is surveilled and criminalized. A person does not have to be behind bars to be in prison.
“Where are all the white inmates?” is brought up during Part 2 of the series and is more of a statement than a question. If anything, this statement is a concrete detail in the thesis that the prison system needs to be abolished because it is fueled by racism and is a stabilizer in keeping structural racism intact. The purpose of this institution is not to rehabilitate people (because that would actually be humane and necessary) but to continue to break down Black and Brown communities.
There will not be justice for Kalief Browder until prisons in the U.S. and around the world are completely abolished.
Not only did policing and state violence break down Kalief Browder’s family, but it broke him down to a point where we cannot get him, and others like him, back. Browder suffered from paranoia and delusions induced by his stay at Rikers and in 2015, two years after his release, Kalief Browder died by suicide, something he had attempted five times before while in solitary confinement. Not long after his death, Browder’s mother Vanida who is also featured in the docuseries, died of what some have called a “broken heart“.
If this does not make the case for prison abolition urgent and necessary, then I don’t know what will.
Time: The Kalief Browder Story is a six part series that airs on Spike TV, Wednesdays at 10pm EST/9pm CST
Photo via ABCNews.com (video screenshot)