You’ve probably heard the story of Kalief Browder, the boy from the Bronx who spent three years on Rikers Island — two of them in solitary confinement — awaiting trial for allegedly stealing a backpack. A few months after his release, he was profiled in the New Yorker, in a piece that shone a harsh light on the abuses of the criminal justice system. Two years after his release, Browder committed suicide at age 22. He quickly became a symbol for the dysfunction and cruelty of the country’s prisons, particularly New York’s Rikers Island.
A new six-part documentary on Spike TV, Time: The Kalief Browder Story, tackles Browder’s story from all angles in an attempt to contextualize his ordeal. The series, which premieres Wednesday and boasts the Weinstein brothers and Jay-Z as executive producers, is a solid companion piece to Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow and Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th — part of a growing canon of popular works that take a microscope to the conditions that lead to a story like Browder’s. It’s a story so blatantly unjust it’ll make your blood boil.
The filmmakers resist the urge to deify their subject. Time doesn’t need to resort to hagiography; it’s plain that Browder, who was 16 at the time of his arrest, was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. His crime, activist and commentator Van Jones insists, is not that he took someone’s backpack but that he was poor and black.
Civil rights activists, attorneys, former inmates and correctional officers, and occasionally Jay-Z himself testify to the dysfunction of the criminal justice system in the United States, and the needlessly cruel punishment that awaits teenagers who are sent to Rikers. Of the two episodes available for review, the first illustrates Browder’s vulnerability to a false accusation and to jail time; the second focuses on the conditions on Rikers Island, which Browder, in later interviews, describes as “hell on Earth.” “Sometimes I feel like I’m never gonna be the same,” he admits after his release. “Deep down, I’m a mess. I’m 21 and on the inside, I feel like I’m 40.”
The series’ objective is apparently twofold: To honor Browder’s life and to demonstrate, step by step, how the cycle of poverty and incarceration destroys innocent lives. The filmmakers take us through the process of Browder’s arrest as well as the civil rights suit he filed against the City of New York upon his release. Despite no evidence of wrongdoing, 11 attorneys turned him down before he landed one, a former D.A. named Paul Prestia, who would take his case. (A public attorney, one talking head explains, is judged not by the number of acquittals he wins but by “how many cases he can get off his desk.”)
Time is deeply empathetic towards its subject and scathingly critical of the legal system that put Browder behind bars and changed him so fundamentally. Talking heads like Jones, Al Sharpton, and former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik explain how the process is weighted against a defendant like Browder. After police officers picked up Browder while he was walking home one night, his mother couldn’t afford bail. “A lot of people just go to the ATM,” activist Ezra Ritchin notes. “But we’re sitting in the poorest congressional district in the country. Eighty-five to ninety percent of people can’t make bail.”
The series nimbly alternates between Browder’s story and one that’s closer in scale to 13th, DuVernay’s documentary about the intersection between race and incarceration in America. It’s a story about a rapidly fraying social safety net and the heavy police presence that has come to fill the void. Instructive details speak to the intractability of the problem, the deep roots of racial discrimination and violence in this country — like Rikers’ namesake, Richard Riker, New York’s chief magistrate from 1815 to 1838, who had a side hustle kidnapping runaway slaves and selling them back into bondage.
From Browder’s experience in foster care (his birth mother was a crack addict) to his early brushes with police to the arrest that put him on Rikers, the story of this one person speaks volumes about the system of racial inequality in the United States. Time combines the details of Browder’s life with historical insight to paint a picture of structural abuse that relies on dehumanizing the millions of prisoners sitting in facilities across the country. “They are the ‘others’ we allow to exist just in the periphery of our own imagination,” Michelle Alexander says. “We’re going to have to learn to care about them.”
Time: The Kalief Browder Story premieres Wednesday, March 1 at 10 p.m. on Spike.