The Ultimate Cost of Neglect
Kalief Browder’s story did not begin on June 8th 2015, when news of his suicide rocked headlines in New York, home of Rikers Island detention complex, where he spent three years awaiting trial for allegedly stealing a backpack – a charge that was ultimately dismissed. It did not even begin on May 15th, 2010, the day he was arrested, after which police assured him he’d “most likely be able to go home” at the end of the day. But Browder’s family couldn’t afford his $3,000 bail, so Kalief soon found himself on a bus heading to Rikers.
The best way to tell Kalief Browder’s story is to begin on May 25th, 1993, the day he was born into a country with only 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world's incarcerated population; a country where people of color make up more than 60% of inmates; a country where one in eight black men in their twenties will be locked up; a country where despite near identical drug use rates across races, 75% of those convicted of drug offenses are people of color - and a state where the number is 94%. Kalief Browder was born into what Michelle Alexander calls The New Jim Crow - a purposefully abusive and wildly corrupt faux-justice system that disproportionately targets and criminalizes people of color, often for life, and overwhelmingly for profit. The terror, violence, and dehumanization that Kalief experienced was prepared for him, though he was not prepared for it. So despite meeting celeb sympathizers like Jay-Z and Rosie O’Donnell after his release, despite having his college tuition paid for and articles written about him, he could find no other recourse, in the end, than to hang himself. His last words: “Ma, I can't take it anymore.” While he may have fashioned his noose, Kalief Browder did not kill himself - he was slowly and methodically murdered, by an insidious milieu of state sanctioned policy.
Browder’s death has become the latest call to action in a decades-long campaign for prison reform. Activists assert that it is the single most important issue of our day. The term “New Jim Crow” suggests that our prison system is more than just putting criminals behind bars, but the conscious evolution of black bondage. “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery,” wrote W.E.B. DuBois, in his 1935 volume Black Reconstruction. Activist Angela Davis, herself a former inmate, uses DuBois’ terms when characterizing our prison system. She sees it as “the failure to enact abolition democracy”, which would have meant "the abolition of slavery, abolition of the death penalty, and the abolition of the prison." The fact that we are one of the few nations in the world with an active death penalty, which excessively preys on people of color, also indicates a tradition of neo-lynching.
Who’s helping who?
Whorl Inside A Loop, a new play by Dick Scanlan and Sherie Rene Scott, explores life on the inside, among a group of prisoners caught in the snarl of these systems. Its text, though fictional, grew out of their real life experiences co-teaching in the New York prison system, and builds characters from the actual monologues devised by their students. In a brilliant twist of theatricality, the cast, comprised almost entirely of black males, play not only the prisoner-characters in question, but a slew of correctional workers and predominantly white Americans on the “outside” (Republicans, hairdressers, and Lawyers alike). A central question, which we experience through our meeting of almost three dozen characters, is if we are “the worst thing we’ve ever done”. And even if our worst thing is really, really bad, exactly what should our time in prison be doing for us? More to the point, and quite worth asking, is the role drama - which implies the triggering of our empathy - can play in rehabilitation.
From my own experiences I can tell you this work is astoundingly important yet rare. When teaching a group of juveniles, in the midst of an acting exercise one of the most charmingly tangential students seemed intent on telling me the story of why he was locked up, so finally I let him. It came down to stealing credit cards. I asked him simply, “what if it was your money”. A pregnant pause ensued, after which he snapped back with razor sharp hubris: “but it wasn’t though!”. But that silence and the thinking therein indicated to me that he had never before been positioned to consider his actions in that manner. Later that day I wondered why in the totality of our juvenile justice system, such a line of query and safe-space creation fell on me, the under experienced volunteer non-professional. It begs the question: What is going on in our justice system? Whorl Inside A Loop explores this question by shaving down the line between the “prisoner” characters and “non-prisoner” characters, forcing us to examine how we really feel about both.
The real Rikers Island “seems more inspired by The Lord of the Flies than any legitimate philosophy of humane detention” according to Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District. It’s a place overtaxed and undertrained, beset with error from its very founding.Yes, it holds criminals, but as Whorl Inside A Loop notes, “however you get there, being in prison is the punishment. What you do while you’re there should be the rehabilitation.” Yet efforts at rehabilitation tends to come entirely from the outside, from people who have jobs and lives and pinch together loose bits of time to offer moments of respite - one off music classes, art therapy sessions, short engagements with creative writing; all pressure for accountability comes from civilians, namely the families of the convicted, and any and all change comes after disarray and death.
The Beast of Many Heads
Over-policing (see: “Stop & Frisk”, “Broken Windows”), lack of proper police training, hyper surveillance, and lack of police accountability make it easy to round up poor people of color, often vilified at first sight, who have no way to voice their plight. For contrast, a Texas teen can steal a car while drunk and kill four people, only to be punished with rehab - as in the infamous “affluenza” case. Inadequate spending on education poor school districts, coupled with ineffective and overly punitive disciplinary measures in school, results in what the ACLU calls the “school to prison pipeline”, a phenomenon which finds many children of color pushed into a cycle of incarceration. Take for instance the Kids for Cash scandal, where a Pennsylvania judge received $2.6 million in kickbacks for sentencing juveniles to for-profit prisons with unusually harsh sentences. This hybrid mechanism functions as a feverish carceral state that may hold as many as 120,000 innocent people in its grasp.
Yet why has it taken so long for this issue to become important? Perhaps it’s because the towering opponent is the Goliath known as the Prison Industrial Complex, a multi-billion dollar for-profit private industry which conspires to corral the poor, homeless, and mentally ill to function as a virtually free workforce for the morally bankrupt though otherwise rich corporations of America. As violent crime has fallen across the country, the prison population has boomed, bolstered by non-violent and low level drug offenders, victims of the disastrously failed “War on Drugs”. These “offenders”, by the way, are often simply addicts who find, upon incarceration, that drug treatment is available to just one in ten of the inmates who require it, (though a whopping 80% of our prison population has a history of substance abuse). Some $80 billion is spent annually on prisons, probation, parole and detention, while state spending on prisons has grown at six times the rate of spending for higher education (taxpayers, rejoice!).
But here’s where it gets truly diabolical: nearly two-thirds of private prison contracts require state and local governments to maintain specified occupancy rates, generally at 90% capacity, or else mandate taxpayers to foot the bill for the difference. Arizona has three prisons that must remain 100% full. Even the prison phone system is a racket - loved ones of the incarcerated can expect regular bills of over $1,000 a year just to stay in touch. “Regardless of what [the prisons] are using the money for, this is about shifting the cost of the police state onto the backs of the poor people being policed,” asserts Paul Wright, executive director of Human Rights Defense Center. This is systematic disenfranchisement and profiteering at its most cunning. The truth is, it’s a truly bipartisan effort: elected officials from both sides of the aisle happily acquiesce to what is now one of the strongest lobbies in the country to make it all possible.
Such forces conspire to make the 80,000 people facing the physical and psychological torture of solitary confinement at any given moment a silenced cause (this web series provides a harrowingly accurate portrayal). Every year thousands are sent straight from solitary to the street without any support for the brutal transition. (Kalief Browder spent some 17 months in solitary before his release. "Many inmates undergo many unnecessary mental health problems that are left up to them and their family members to deal with and fix," he wrote before his death). The number of women sentenced to at least a year in prison has grown twelve times since 1970. Three quarters of imprisoned women have children and nearly three quarters of them are non-violent offenders. Our parole system - which could funnel many reformed prisoners out from behind the walls - has little consistency state-to-state and is mired in its own mysterious internal politics. But even once you get out, prisoners confess it’s never really over: getting a job is difficult, exorbitant parole fees are nearly impossible to afford, post-incarceration trauma is met a lack of mental health services, and overall ‘convict’ stigma make many lesser sentences feel like life, whether they are spent within or outside prison walls.
What’s worse is that even though the voices of the formerly incarcerated ought to be central to the reform movement, affecting change in the political process can be extremely difficult with 13% of black men disenfranchised due to imprisonment. The message is clear: America does not care, or want to care, about its prison system or prisoners.
The Rising Tide of Justice
The prison boom started here in New York State, which revitalized local economies under the guise of “tough on crime” policies aimed at those people who deserve to go away. But at what cost? Can we really separate “us” from “them”? Prisons, and their population, are the direct result of our free society’s failures. Who goes in, and who comes out - the very notion of justice, is a direct measure of how well the American project is holding up to its promise of justice for all. Whorl Inside A Loop, in both its writing and direction, blends the worlds of the “outside” and the “pen” seamlessly until it’s harder and harder to tell them apart. Perhaps this is just the thing then: the two worlds are the same after all. Do concrete structures entrenched with bars, gates, and fences grant sovereignty to a parallel universe that isn't accountable to the standards of the country surrounding it? Should doing wrong (and wrongdoing) require living in an environment that only enhances trauma and violence? Is this what the United States - quite distinct in the world - has really become? Whorl goes to great lengths to examine if we “are the worst thing we’ve ever done”, but our country has already affirmed that the answer is a resounding yes. America does not care how one gets in prison, just that they do. It does not care what happens while one is there, just that they stay. It does not care what happens when one is released, just that they never ever forget where they came from. This cycle is our cycle. This place - prison - is our place. Our money, our children, our communities, support and are trapped by it. Over and over again, we let them down. By doing so, we let ourselves down.
President Obama is the first sitting American president to visit a federal prison, speaking in advance of the trip on the need for reform with greater length and detail than any president before him, further underscoring the importance of this struggle. He translated some of the statistics quoted here into a shift in national priorities, offering that the $80 billion we spend on incarceration could provide “universal preschool for every three-year-old and four-year-old in America.” Yet he dug deeper by stating that “the costs cannot be measured in dollars and cents. Because the statistics on who gets incarcerated show that by a large margin, it disproportionately impacts communities of color.” In an effort to dissuade us from our prison culture he also noted “crime is like any other epidemic. The best time to stop it is before it starts.” And as the very staging and theatercraft of Whorl suggests, he impels us to remember that prisoners “are also Americans”. Wielding his executive power with powerful effect, he commuted the prison sentences of 46 drug offenders, on the grounds that “their sentences didn’t fit the crimes”.
While President Obama’s speech could stoke the fire around prison reform in the country, a true shift in the discourse will require more than high level government officials waking up on a different side of the bed. It will require cooperation across all levels and sides of government including - most crucially - the local level, where pre-crime practice and accountability in police enforcement truly live. It will require an overhaul of our justice system. If we are to take former Federal Judge Nancy Gertner at her word, in her 17 years of ruling cases, “80 percent were unfair and disproportionate”. She admitted that the policies of the “War on Drugs” “eliminated a generation of African American men, [and] covered our racism in ostensibly neutral guidelines and mandatory minimums”. Former President Bill Clinton recently admitted the very “tough on crime” policies he signed into effect “made the problem worse”. In the continued legacy of the racist redlining programs that created ghettos across the country, it is also a matter of socio-economics: a recent study shows poor whites live in richer neighborhoods than middle-class blacks and Latinos, poverty being a precursor to crime. It is a matter of our basic perception - even police are asking people to stop “making their job difficult” by basically calling them because they’re scared of black people. A good deal of the problem comes from how media portrays not just criminals, but victims as well. Everyone everywhere must move to decriminalize black bodies, if we’re going to achieve true justice.
So what can we do? The most important thing as citizens is to be properly informed, to wean ourselves away from fear-based crime reporting in the mainstream and tap into sources like The Crime Report and The Marshall Project, which are committed to comprehensive coverage and complex analysis. We must attune ourselves to the voices of the currently and formerly incarcerated, as they speak to us in writing and utilize new media to bear witness. What better way to understand solitary than reading Kalief Browder’s research paper on it? When making art, we can also include the incarcerated voices, as Whorl Inside A Loop has. This intimate level of knowledge is required for making informed voting decisions and applying the right kind of pressure to those in office. We can use our collective power to demand institutions divest from for-profit prisons (as in the case of Columbia University student’s recent divestment victory), Extra-governmentally, rather than encouraging every young mind to strike gold in Silicon Valley by making another app for another thing we don’t really need, we ought to use so-called "disruptive innovation" to energize new programs. We can work collectively by supporting local grassroots activists organizations and national advocate networks alike. We can use our philanthropy to create comprehensive programs and fresh inquiries when our government can’t make up its mind. If you’re on the inside, use your voice to name unspoken truths. If you’re on the outside, keep the pressure up on the inside. Become a mentor, or share your talent.
Kalief Browder’s death could have been prevented, but perhaps the time for that work should have been May 25th, 1993, the day before his birth. Remembering yesterday, and starting tomorrow, let us dismantle the practices that create a vortex of death and despair for black lives. Let tomorrow be a world where a child enters the world without an orange jumpsuit with their name on it, waiting for them.
Special thanks to Eisa Davis for additional editing.