written by Valerie Morales
The pain of mass incarceration has Kalief Browder as its soul. The Bronx teen who endured the ravages and barbarism of solitary confinement was in the hole for two somber and lonely years. His case never went to trial. Nevertheless, Browder was dragged in front of 8 different judges over three years with a variety of charges added on to the original charge of stealing a backpack.
In a 2016 op-ed in the Washington Post, President Barack Obama referenced the Kalief Browder injustice. Obama made a strong case that juveniles should never be exposed to solitary confinement, regardless of their behavior. They are neurologically fragile for the intractable brain trauma solitary triggers on demand. Obama outlawed solitary for juveniles in federal facilities and limited it for everyone else. But only 10% of the prison population reside in federal lockups. Obama’s gesture was like tossing a pebble into craven waters and watching it disappear.
Despite his well written plea about second chances, Obama failed to identify prisons for what they are not. They are not conversion therapy and they are not redemption mills. They are institutions of social control. Prisons are sordid and paganistic conservatories, triggering the most base instincts of confrontational man: rage, jealousy, desperation. They are the largest mental health facility in the world.
States vary on whether they think it is a crises or not. Louisiana has reduced the number of inmates in solitary but still have twice the national average. Recently, the Department of Justice singled out Alabama for its lack of inmate protection. Inmate homicide is a regular occurrence. Guards ignore rape and classify stabbing homicide as natural deaths. Because of severe understaffing, Alabama relies heavily on solitary confinement to control behavior of the inmates under their supervision. Other states, are much more proactive of a culture change.
Colorado cut the number of people in solitary confinement, and assaults against staff are the lowest they’ve been since 2006. New Mexico implemented reforms and has seen a drop in solitary confinement, with more prisoners engaging in promising rehabilitation programs. And since 2012, federal prisons have cut the use of solitary confinement by 25 percent and significantly reduced assaults on staff. (Barack Obama, Washington Post, 2016)
What the Quakers introduced three centuries ago is now considered torture by the United Nations. The pious Quakers wanted to believe that a Bible and silence would trigger repentance. With nothing but time, the prisoner would teach himself a lesson. On so many levels, this is simplistic at best, and a narrow view of God and monsters. Solitary doesn’t elevate the prisoner’s better self. It is not sanctuary. It is arbitrary vengeance.
Consider the inmate who liked to talk loud about politics. The officers told him to knock it off. He wouldn’t and so he was sent to solitary. For years. A woman wouldn’t stand the right way during a lineup. She was sent to solitary. Same with the man caught with some weed. A one or two day punishment perhaps, but years in a box that has no mercy?
The association of guilt with violence easily transitions us into the idea that solitary is necessary because inmates are animals. They are cruel, puerile, selfish, self absorbed, lack remorse or accountability, and are desperate. True in a fraction of cases. And in other cases, they have been wrongly accused. And in other cases, they are drug fiends. And in other cases, they had no money for an adequate defense. And in other cases, they have been throwaways all their life. And in other cases, they deserve the hair of the dog that bit them.
Solitary confinement and the absence of light, and a paper gown, and toilet paper and a mattress (often the mattress is removed), and minimal contact, triggers suicide ideation, psychosis, and delusion. Once solitary is over, the brain continues as if solitary is still in progress. It is a bloody business of mutilation.
Shawn Smith, who was in solitary for 15 years, said “I’ve had these cell walls make me see delusions. I’ve tried to kill myself a few times. I’ve smeared my own blood on my cell wall and ceiling.”
Bronx teen Kalief Browder knew about blood. He knew the scent on the blade of a razor. But that is not how he died. Or why.
We torture people in America, tens of thousands of them every day. It’s done in our names, with our tax dollars, behind closed doors. (Laura Rovner, law professor, University of Denver)
Before he committed suicide, Kalief Browder said sadly, “I feel like I was robbed of my happiness.” Inside the backpack Browder was accused of stealing was a camera, $700, a credit card, and an iPod. Browder was identified by the victim as the thief although there was no evidence linking him to the crime, not the cash, credit card or iPod. Although the victim changed his original timeline, saying the backpack was stolen two weeks earlier, Browder’s fate was sealed. He was a black boy accused, and as Ana DuVernay’s film When They See Us illustrates, that is devastating.
Despite repeating his innocence, Kalief Browder was charged with robbery, grand larceny and assault. His bail was an insurmountable $3,000, something his family could not pay. When they cobbled the money together it was denied because Kalief was on probation at the time of the accusation.
Subsequently, he entered a matrix of violence and despair. He often spoke of the Rikers brutality. There was one fight among inmates that caused Browder to be punched in the face by guards who were looking for the ringleader of a fight. The violence wasn’t singular to Browder. The violence was supposed to unearth a confession, or eroticize snitching. When that didn’t bear any fruit, solitary confinement was tossed out as a worst case scenario.
Browder was put into solitary after a fight with an inmate who was throwing shoes. He was defending himself. There is footage of a guard assaulting him and a group of inmates kicking him. His family heard the stories of being starved and beaten by guards.
His first suicide attempt was in prison. His second attempt, he tried to hang himself. He tied sheets to a ceiling light. Browder was goaded into suicide by cruel guards who mocked him and were amused at the idea of him taking his life. There was also the time he slit his wrists. It was not a cry for help. It was not theater. It was a way to get out of solitary.
We have a warped fantasy about prison. Barack Obama sermonized, “We believe that when people make mistakes, they deserve the opportunity to remake their lives.” But punishment does not usher in piety. We want to believe that you go to prison with a scarlet letter and come out washed clean; it is a baptism. That prison is some sort of university for the impulsive and uncontrollable.
Prison is barbaric but it likes to imagine itself a crusader for the innocent and pure, and that is why it slays inmates brains. For us. They are doing the dirty deeds we don’t have the stomach for.
My mother-in-law was murdered in New Orleans and during the jury selection for the 20 year old accused of killing her, the prosecutor posed a question to each juror. “Which is worse: an innocent man to go to prison, or a guilty man to go free?” It was a question meant to probe a philosophy. Do you fear for yourself, or do you fear for the world?
I’ve posed that same question to women and men alike and the responses, frankly, trend along gender lines. Most women who have been taught to fear rape and partner abuse say it’s worse for a criminal to be let free, imagining what would happen if an abuser wound up on her doorstep. Many men, black men I must add, say the worst thing is for an innocent man to go to prison. Men understand on a base level what prison does to their psyche. It brings about their own death.
Kalief Browder enrolled in community college, earned a 3.5 GPA, but he couldn’t manage his panic attacks. He left school and then returned when an anonymous donor paid his tuition. He wrote about solitary confinement and received an A grade.
“Solitary confinement should be looked at as a whole around the United States and even though changes toward the solitary confinement system have begun in some states, more needs to be done and addressed around the country. In a lot of jails and prisons there are a lot of living circumstances and practices that go on within that are not addressed that people need to shed light on like solitary confinement, for example.” ( A Closer Look At Solitary Confinement, Kalief Browder)
Kalief Browder worked as a tutor and curiously as a security guard but his mental illness history made him give up the job and rightly so. It had all the earmarks of an epic disaster. He passed out flyers on Wall Street and admired those going to work in suits. “I want to be successful, like them.” His anti-psychotic meds were supposed to regulate his moods and paranoia.
“People tell me because I have this case against the city, I’m all right. But I’m not all right. I’m messed up. I know that I might see some money from this case but that’s not going to help me mentally. I’m mentally scarred now.”
He was a celebrity of sorts. Rand Paul began telling his story on the campaign trail. He was on the View and Rosie O’Donnell purchased a MacBook for him. Jay Z was awed by his perseverance. After prison, he walked to school, an hour each way. He was always studying.
But three times he was admitted to the psychiatric ward, twice at St. Barnabas Hospital and once at Harlem Hospital. One time, he tried to hang himself from the bannister in his house. In January 2015, the New York City Council voted to end solitary confinement for those under 21 years of age. A few months later, in June, he told his mother, “Ma, I can’t take it anymore.”
The next day, Kalief Browder hung himself from an air conditioning unit. His mother heard a sound and went looking. That’s when she found his lifeless body. A year later, she died of a heart attack. Or, a broken heart. Or, just all the damned stress of reliving her son’s horror, again and again.
It is not what you think. It is not what you have been told. It is not a box. A box has mercy. A box has light. Boxes don’t shutter screams and men begging day and night. Women don’t weep in boxes until their skin bleeds.
Book readers have an advantage in solitary. They can pass the time by slipping into the world of language. They can get their GED or college education. The activity keeps the brain moored. But day after day, reading or not, there is solitude as a companion. And aloneness. And fear. And thoughts that are often violent, self-defeating, and macabre.
Men returning to the world after solitary confinement, understandably, are broken with dead eyes. They are the solitary throwaways. If we did this to a dog we’d have to shut down social media accounts and turn ourselves in for assault. If we did this to a child we’d be vilified and despised, our childhoods would be pored over to see where the mistake happened; didn’t anyone love us? But we do it to hundreds of black men. We are doing it to Paul Manafort now.
For some reason I can’t quite wrap my brain around, there is glee about Paul Manafort at Rikers. Perhaps it is because we think white privilege eventually has to pay a price, but not really. Privilege isn’t earned and privilege isn’t a crime. The crime is being a liar and a cheat. Manafort is a money whore and now he is being punished for it and for some, it is karma on a justice level, like O.J. getting off was karma on a racist Jim Crow level.
The question isn’t whether Manafort deserves to be isolated but rather what solitary will do to a man who is 70 years old when we know solitary reshapes the brain into a suicidal mess of clay. Perhaps that is the point. The prosecutors want such a horror for Manafort so he will agree to a plea.
(Kalief Browder was offered many pleas. All of them he turned down.)
Protective custody, restricted housing, however you want to pretty it up, it changes the psyche. Often, it triggers psychosis and suicidal fantasies. It is the groundwork for violent behavior as causation, either to the self or others. Violent impulses are difficult to control. So everyone now is at risk.
Those in protective isolation are often gang members whose very presence hint at future violence and innocent victims. 85% of lesbian, gay and bisexual inmates admitted to being in solitary for their safety, according to a 2015 survey. Many who are in solitary are there for possessing contraband. Or, refusing to obey. Or, being mentally ill.
In 2013, Tom Clements was gunned down by a former inmate, a white supremacist who had been in solitary. Clements was the head of Colorado corrections. Wanting a better understanding of what solitary is, his replacement spent 20 hours in the hole.
“Twenty hours was a grain of sand on a beach. But I didn’t need more time in there to know that absolutely no good would come from it.” (Rick Raemisch)
20 hours of isolation would be a Paul Manafort gift. It won’t happen and Manafort has a problem unimagined when he began his series of alleged crimes. He will be in the same place that damaged Kalief Browder, though Manafort is 54 years older than Kalief was when he was in the Rikers hole. It won’t spare him though, having lived a more exclusive and luxurious life than Kalief Browder lived in the Bronx.
Kalief Browder somehow managed to survive Rikers and solitary. But he kept touching his wounds as the damaged often do. Or, the opposite. Those wounds kept touching him. Again. And again. It was a matter of time before they killed him. It’s a given. An obvious. Rikers eventually kills you. One way or another. Today or tomorrow. Solitary eventually kills you, one way or another. Today or tomorrow.