Think back to your high school years – where you lived, who your friends were, what you were into. Now imagine that your junior and senior years of high school never happened: that instead, you had spent those years trapped in a jail cell – without ever even being convicted of a crime. This is not a story out of Kafka. It’s what happened to Kalief Browder, a Bronx teenager. When Browder was 16, he was arrested for robbery and assault after allegedly stealing a backpack. He spent three years on Rikers Island, New York City’s notorious jail, waiting to go to trial.
New Yorker staff writer Jennifer Gonnerman wrote about Browder in 2014, and the case put a spotlight on all the failings of New York City’s justice system: delays in the courts, the overuse of solitary confinement, teenagers charged as adults, brutality on the part of corrections officers. Two years after Browder got out of jail, he took his own life. His suicide became national news, and was mentioned by President Obama in an op-ed questioning the use of solitary confinement.
I worked with Jen Gonnerman, going back to the hours of recordings from her interviews with him, to produce this program for The New Yorker Radio Hour as a memorial. It aired in June 2016, the anniversary of Kalief Browder’s death.