This is prom season for high school students. Just last week, my neighbor’s son stood outside my Bed-Stuy apartment building in his all white suit waiting for his ride to take him and his date to their prom. His mom laid out a red rug as her homemade version of a red carpet for her little prince. Kalief Browder did not get to wear a white suit. Kalief Browder did not get to attend his high school prom. Instead, Kalief Browder suffered on Rikers Island for three years for a crime he did not commit.
While his peers were getting ready for their big night, officers on Rikers were starving Kalief day after day. Officers on Rikers were beating him. Other incarcerated peers were jumping him on Rikers. He was being held in solitary confinement. He was recovering from one of his failed attempts at suicide. He was living the life that more than 60,000 young people live in this country. He was living my life.
Only five years after serving my 10-year sentence that began when I was nineteen, Kalief’s story reminded of what I chose to forget. Hearing Kalief tell his story again reminded me that I, too, was starved by correction officers; but unlike, Kalief, my first experiences with this sort of abuse did not happen while in solitary confinement. I was in the general population in Green Haven Correctional Facility. I went to sleep hungry and woke up hungry, and I knew that if I complained, I would only be starved longer. Worse off, this practice was normal. A cell mate who was 18-years into a 25-year sentence calmed me by saying, “Marlon, don’t stress it. It’s part of the bid. We all go through it.” That was my orientation to state prison. So I became creative with no eating to a fault. I now have diabetic issues, mainly because I do not maintain proper blood-sugar levels. I go too long without food, doctors tell me.
Abuse became a part of my sentence. Being refused showers was part of the bid. But, as I look at my sentencing papers, nowhere do I see abuse attached to the sentence. Beyond that, what does it say about me who was able to forget that I was abused by a system that is euphemistically called a correctional facility? I normalized the abuse. Kalief refused to normalize it, and for that he paid with his life.
Kalief Browder’s story, resurrected since his suicide on June 6, has struck a raw nerve in the consciousness of some in this nation. Rand Paul, Marc Lamont Hill, Rosie O’Donnell, Jay-Z, and other notables have been speaking about his tragic death. His suicide in his Bronx, New York, home awakened some to the atrocity that a 16-year old boy, who maintained his innocence, could be held in custody for 33 months on an island-jail for allegedly stealing a backpack. It sickened us that he had to wallow in the abyss of Rikers because his family could not afford a $10,000 bail. Some of us had our day interrupted by the news that he was beaten by correction officers, even punished for attempting suicide, and starved.
Then we were devastated to learn that not too long after Kalief’s eventual release and the dismissal of the charges, he was gone—having hung himself from his apartment window—just one month after he wrote his college research paper titled, “A Closer Look at Solitary Confinement in the United States.”
Politicians, pundits and community leaders responded with saying that Rikers Island should be closed. Glenn Martin, founder of JustLeadershipUSA, offered that “removal of all youth from Rikers Island would be a conservative step in the right direction.” New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio inserted that this “case was an eye-opener to New Yorkers across the board.” His solution: “We need some type of bail reform.”
All of the above is true and correct, but why was this particular tragedy an eye opener? Which parts of the case actually surprised us? The wrongful arrest? The high bail? The family’s inability to afford the bail? The abuse by the guards? Kalief’s several attempts at suicide? His eventual suicide? What about this case were we unaware of? Or in convenient denial of? Did we think that abuse in jail and prison was specific just to Rikers Island?
A simple Google search will elicit hundreds of articles, academic research, personal blogs, Vimeo and YouTube videos about abuse in prison, about indigent defendants, about malicious prosecution, about Kalief Browders of different names. Kalief even wrote about it.
We knew. We did not care.
We did not care to check in with our humanity, even if the person arrested was guilty. We rationalized abuse by being empathetic for people arrested and convicted for non-violent offenses and dismissing those incarcerated for violent offenses. We voted for 2,000,000 million people to be prison by incentivizing tough on crime rhetoric with our votes. We pledged allegiance to policies and rhetoric that have imprisoned more than 60,000 young people. We neglected that New York and North Carolina are the only two states that prosecute minors as adults. We ignored reports that exposed longtime abuses on Rikers Island. We removed formerly incarcerated people from our ballots and juries—people who could best inform public debate about problems with the criminal justice system. We “lock up” rather than support individuals who may have psychological challenges, who plead—as Kalief says he did—to speak with professionals for help.
Instead of searching for the one officer, or one jail that should be reformed, we need to admit that his nation’s collective blood thirst for vengeance and punishment is the real culprit. Kalief’s death was not a suicide, but a homicide by committee. You are on that committee. Your silence is your vote. What should be the conditions of your confinement? Are you ready to miss your prom?
Marlon Peterson is a writer and activist and founder of the Precedential Group, a social justice consulting firm. Follow him on Twitter @marlon_79.