On Tuesday, April 10, Wellesley Against Mass Incarceration (WAMI), an organization I am committed to, hosted a documentary screening of the Netflix docu-series “Time: The Kalief Browder story” in Pendleton Atrium with a talkback featuring Assistant Professor of Africana Studies Kellie Carter-Jackson, Knafel Assistant Professor of Social Sciences and Assistant Professor of History Brenna Greer and Associate Professor of Peace and Justice Studies Catia Confortini. The documentary is a six-part series that unravels the story of Kalief Browder, a young man from the Bronx, who, at 16, was imprisoned at Rikers Island, a maximum security prison on an island off New York, for allegedly stealing a backpack. Browder was put in solitary confinement for one year out of his three years at Rikers Prison. At the time of printing, “Time: The Kalief Browder Story” was selected alongside eight other documentaries to receive Peabody Awards, which honor engaging, affecting and informative television programming. At the screening, WAMI showed only part of the series and encouraged the audience to watch the rest of the episodes on their own.
The subject matter of the documentary is serious and thus necessitated content warnings for for violence, abuse and suicide, which were given by WAMI Vice President Alejandra Chaisson ’19. Although the documentary was difficult to watch, it was necessary to give people a glimpse of the cruel injustices America’s criminal justice system disproportionately enacts on the bodies and minds of low-income people of color.Browder’s story was simply a microcosm for the stories of many throughout the country.
The first part of the docu-series delves into aspects of Browder’s life before his arrest: his family, his neighborhood, his friends. It tells the story of how he was taken from his cocaine-addicted mother at birth and immediately put into foster care. He didn’t grow up with much: his school was terribly under-funded and resources in his community were scarce. Lacking a father figure—his adopted father had abandoned his adopted family—Browder fell in with a “bad crowd” and got probation for illegally riding a bakery truck. That, the documentary explains, was the beginning of the end for him. Many in Browder’s position don’t know that once you’re on probation, even without being charged or serving jail time, your next offense can lead to a heavy sentence.
“Time” does an excellent job featuring the viewpoints and expert opinions of various people familiar with the U.S. criminal justice system, such as social justice activists, from Van Jones, a political analyst, to Jay-Z, who is the producer of the documentary and has a personal connection to the system. From these interviews, the viewer gain an understanding of just how badly the criminal justice system failed Browder.
The documentary then goes on to follow Browder’s arrest, questioning and imprisonment on Rikers Island. A key component on which it focuses is the difficulty of paying bail for low-income people like Browder. His bail was posted at $900, but it was difficult for his family to scrape together the necessary funds. The documentary’s portrayal of Browder’s experience with the bail system, demonstrates that the criminal justice system tends to punish people for being poor rather than for committing a crime.
Another episode of “Time” focused on Browder’s solitary confinement Browder at Rikers Island. Although the documentary informs us that keeping someone in solitary confinement for more than 15 days is widely recognized by psychologists as a form of torture, he spent more than a year in solitary confinement. Expert testimonials from psychologists explained the harrowing effects that treatment has on a person, especially on someone whose brain has not fully developed.
Solitary confinement, and overall abusive treatment at Rikers Island left Kalief Browder a shell of who he once was. Although the charges were dropped, his stolen years left a heavy mark oh him. During the documentary, Browder spoke mournfully about how psychologically damaged and emotionally frayed the experience left him. He tragically committed suicide on June 6, 2015.
The talkback after the screening was informative and insightful, providing an interdisciplinary perspective as each professor offered her perspective from her field of study. First, Professor Carter-Jackson gave the audience a personal perspective on having a loved one in prison. She talked about how she had to grapple with her own internal biases and humanize prisoners. She admitted that when she visited her brother in prison, she was shocked to see other prisoners having “genuine emotional connections” with their loved ones. She said she realized that we must confront our own prejudices.
Next, Professor Greer gave a historical account of mass incarceration as a tool that is used to subjugate, warehouse and dehumanize people of color in the United States, particularly on the heels of slavery, Jim Crow and the War on Drugs. “The system hasn’t failed,” she asserted, “The system is working exactly as it was designed to.”
Finally, Professor Confortini presented a comparative case study on how inhumane the U.S. prison system is in comparison to other countries’. She mentioned that the U.S. is never truly challenged by the United Nations for the human rights violations it commits through mass incarceration because of America’s power and hegemony on a global scale. However, she acknowledged that the prison industrial complex is a form of capitalism and truly eradicating it would require “end[ing] capitalism.”
Students were also critical of the American criminal justice system in their responses to the screening. One student wondered how the U.S. was allowed to torture inmates using solitary confinement without domestic backlash, to which Professor Greer responded that prisoners would have to be “seen as human” for there to be domestic outcry, referencing the dehumanization of people who commit crimes in our society.
The documentary screening and talkback provided a crucial and emotional glimpse at just one of many lives that have been tragically ruined by America’s broken criminal justice system.