While I don’t think America’s cruel prison-industrial complex has gotten to the point where prisoners are mass-murdered and buried in mass graves, we have gotten to the point where we urgently need to be openly engaged in a conversation about how children and adults of both sexes, particularly African Americans, are whisked off the streets and “disappeared” into jails like Rikers for years at a time, without a trial, for no good reason, left to the whims of a system that is capricious in the way it metes out justice to those who don’t have the means to put up a legal defense.
The term “desaparecidos” means disappeared in Spanish. Its use began in 1980’s Argentina and it referred to the tens of thousands of Argentines taken by the secret police of the Peron regime. They were held for months or years without due process, were tortured. Many were killed and buried in secret mass-graves.
Kalief Browder, whose story I curated below, is not unique to Rikers or even New York state, though it is of the most extreme form. The way America treats the citizens it punishes, whether they are children, women, minorities, or members of the majority, is shameful beyond description and in violation of the basic human rights standards this first world nation purports to be a leader of. That treatment, by the way, begins before due process has been given and a judgment was rendered. The fact that it is even possible to grab a child off the streets, get him to a prison, and keep him there for three years, is beyond belief in a nation of laws. An integral part of due process is the speed in which a case is taken to trial. In Browder’s case, procedural trickery kept him from getting his due process for three years before having his case dismissed. In “Before The Law,” New Yorker Magazine’s Jennifer Gonnerman wrote:
“In order for a trial to start, both the defense attorney and the prosecutor have to declare that they are ready; the court clerk then searches for a trial judge who is free and transfers the case, and jury selection can begin. Not long after Browder was indicted, an assistant district attorney sent the court a “Notice of Readiness,” stating that “the People are ready for trial.” The case was put on the calendar for possible trial on December 10th, but it did not start that day. On January 28, 2011, Browder’s two-hundred-and-fifty-eighth day in jail, he was brought back to the courthouse once again. This time, the prosecutor said, “The People are not ready. We are requesting one week.” The next court date set by the judge—March 9th—was not one week away but six. As it happened, Browder didn’t go to trial anytime that year. An index card in the court file explains:
June 23, 2011: People not ready, request 1 week.
August 24, 2011: People not ready, request 1 day.
November 4, 2011: People not ready, prosecutor on trial, request 2 weeks.
December 2, 2011: Prosecutor on trial, request January 3rd.
The Bronx courts are so clogged that when a lawyer asks for a one-week adjournment the next court date usually doesn’t happen for six weeks or more. As long as a prosecutor has filed a Notice of Readiness, however, delays caused by court congestion don’t count toward the number of days that are officially held to have elapsed. Every time a prosecutor stood before a judge in Browder’s case, requested a one-week adjournment, and got six weeks instead, this counted as only one week against the six-month deadline. Meanwhile, Browder remained on Rikers, where six weeks still felt like six weeks—and often much longer.”
Kalief Browder was stopped because he is Black and happened to be in a place and at a time that matched a vague robbery complaint. By vague, I mean the complainant couldn’t, with any certainty, tell police on what day he was purportedly robbed, but he was able to list all the items taken from him? Browder was kept in the system because, as is often the case, he pled guilty in return for a quicker release in a previous case. On the day of his last arrest, he was on probation. Everything devolved from there. He wasn’t detained because anyone had proof he committed a crime. He wasn’t even detained on the basis of a crime that was verified. A vague accusation was adapted into a criminal complaint to keep him jailed.
The New York Times’ The Upshot ran an analysis in which they concluded that 1.5 million African Americans are missing due to incarceration. I covered a variety of instances of missing Black men in my own blog post, but wanted readers to learn about the Browder case separately.
Rikers is no place for kids. Teens are kids. What we saw in the video, grown man brutalizing a child, should have led to the mass firing of guards. It didn’t.
One can go from state to state, prison system to prison system and find this kind of brutality perpetrated on prisoners, adults and children alike, male and female. Cases get publicity. Promises are made to cure breakdowns and… nothing gets done until the next case makes the news.
Our system of justice is broken. Our system of policing is broken. What happened to Kalief Browder should not have been possible. It should no longer be possible, but it is. Unless a murder or rape was committed, children should be in school – not in jail; certainly not for three years. Technicalities such as those used in the Browder case should not be permissible. The constitution specifies due process and speed. What was done is a perversion of justice.
Ten days before his 16th birthday, Kalief Browder was arrested in the Bronx on charges of stealing a backpack. Browder would spend the next three years at Rikers Island, New York City’s massive jail complex, awaiting trial. He spent two of those years in solitary confinement. His case was eventually dismissed.
Internal surveillance videos obtained by The New Yorker show that Browder’s time awaiting trial in prison was treacherous. One video, from 2012, shows a guard slamming Browder to the ground while he is handcuffed.
The guard had approached Browder’s cell to escort him to the shower. “I just felt [the guard] tighten a grip around my arm,” Browder told The New Yorker after watching the footage for the first time. “In my head, I was wondering why he tightened it so tight, like he never usually does, and that’s when he swung me and kept trying to slam me.”
Browder told The New Yorker that when a captain arrived, the guard told the captain that Browder had attempted to flee. “I was on the floor going crazy: ‘He’s lying! I didn’t do nothing!’”
A second clip, from 2010, shows Browder at 17 years old being beaten by a group of fellow inmates at Riker’s adolescent facility.