Minors can no longer be placed in solitary confinement in United States prisons because of Kalief Browder. In 2010, Browder was sent to Rikers Island when he was 16 years old for allegedly stealing a backpack. Browder maintained that he was innocent, but spent three years in the New York City jail without trail. He was in solitary confinement for 800 days. In 2015, at the age of 22, Browder committed suicide, prompting President Obama to end juvenile solitary confinement in federal prisons.
A new docuseries called “Time: The Kalief Browder Story” is premiering this week at the Sundance Film Festival. The six-part series, which will air on Spike TV in March, tells the story of Browder’s incarceration and of the severe psychological toll of solitary confinement can take on those subjected to it. The series was produced by Jay Z, who became interested in Browder’s story after reading a profile of the Bronx-born teenager in the New Yorker. While promoting the film at Sundance, Jay Z told Democracy Now! that he believes Rikers Island should be closed.
“Well, if anything like that is happening, if one kid—if that happens to one kid, any place that that can happen to any kid should be closed,” Jay Z said after being asked what he thought should happen to the jail.
“I believe this young man, his story will save a lot of lives,” Jay Z also said. “You know, what was done to him was a huge injustice, and I think people see his story and realize like, man, this is going on. This is not like one case that happened. This is happening a lot for people, you know, especially places where I come from—inner boroughs and Marcy Projects and the Bronx and Brooklyn and all these places. So, it’s very important, his story.”
After Browder was released from Rikers, he studied at Bronx Community College, where his tuition was covered by an anonymous donor. Despite receiving treatment for mental illness related to his time spent in solitary confinement, he was found dead by his mother in June of 2015.
“Kalief’s story helped inspire our efforts on Rikers Island, where we are working to ensure no New Yorkers spend years in jail waiting for their day in court,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement after Browder committed suicide. “There is no reason he should have gone through this ordeal, and his tragic death is a reminder that we must continue to work each day to provide the mental health services so many New Yorkers need. On behalf of all New Yorkers, we send our condolences to the Browder family during this difficult time.”
Eighty to 100,000 inmates are in solitary confinement in United States prisons. The experience is more psychologically harrowing than most Americans realize. The New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement describes it solitary confinement as “confining people in a cell for 22 to 24 hours a day without meaningful human contact, programming, or therapy. This practice is ineffective, counterproductive, unsafe, and inhumane, and it causes people detained in these conditions to deteriorate psychologically, physically, and socially.”