‘Orange is the New Black’s Nick Sandow on Bringing Kalief Browder’s Story to the Small Screen

"The system is so huge, where do you begin? I think you begin by humanizing it."

Nick Sandow is best known for playing prison warden Joe Caputo on Orange is the New Black, a role that led to a growing interest in real-life prison reform. A native New Yorker — like many local actors, he got his first break on Law & Order — Sandow grew up in the Morris Park neighborhood of the Bronx, just five minutes from the home of Kalief Browder.

Browder was arrested in 2010 at the age of 16 for allegedly stealing a backpack, and spent the next three years on Rikers Island, two of them in solitary confinement, awaiting trial. He refused to accept a plea deal, insisting on his innocence. In 2013, he was released; less than two years later, he committed suicide. Browder is the subject of a six-part docu-series currently airing on Spike, Time: The Kalief Browder Story, which began as a passion project of Sandow’s. Flavorwire spoke to the actor and filmmaker about Browder’s story, prison reform, and how TV can shed a light on a world most people rarely, if ever, see.

Flavorwire: How did you get involved with this production?

Nick Sandow: I knew of Kalief’s story from the New Yorker article written by Jen Gonnerman. I was sort of devastated when I heard of his passing. I’ve been playing this guy named Caputo for four years who really can’t get out of his own way. He can’t, I believe, help the people he really wants to help. It’s a heavy thing to do that every day for six months straight, and you sort of feel stuck. Hearing about Kalief’s passing, I was like, I need to do something. I cold-called Kalief’s attorney, Paul Prestia. I didn’t hear back and it was sitting with me, and I said listen, there’s one thing I can do and that’s make a story. I took it took [director] Jenner Furst and [executive producer] Julia Willoughby Nason at [the production company] the Cinemart and said hey guys, what do you think? Do you want to do this documentary? Then we went up to the Bronx and asked the family if they were into it, which was nerve-wracking and scary, to talk to a mom who’s recently lost her son. But they were amazing partners. They just wanted to tell Kalief’s story, and wanted to keep it going, so they were happy to oblige.

How did Jay-Z and the Weinstein Brothers get involved?

We were shooting for close to a year and we had put something together, a trailer or sizzle reel. We knew Jay-Z was a part of Kalief’s life when he was alive, and was a part of his story. We certainly did want to talk to him about it. We got the sizzle to Jay’s people, and we didn’t hear anything for a while. Then a few months later, Jay-Z and the Weinsteins wanted to do it. They saw it as a doc series and we were ready for that.

I didn’t realize this series originated with you.

Yeah, for me it was, make a doc. I wasn’t clear on the series — I think Jenner knew right away that it could be.

Why?

I kept it small because Jenner and I were both funding it and I didn’t know how far that could go. But I think he clearly saw that this story is so big. We can take this young man’s life and dissect this system and sort of highlight every part of the system. He saw the scope of that very clearly.

Were you interested in prison reform before you did OITNB, or did your role on the show push you toward that? Has it changed your perspective of crime and people who commit crimes?

A season runs for seven months, and you’re in that character for seven months. I’m walking around every single day contemplating what it’s like to be a man who goes inside a prison every day. Good-hearted, trying to help the people he’s put in charge of, but the people he works for could care less. Of course I got very interested in the system and I couldn’t stop reading about it. But I also think psychologically, playing someone like Caputo who’s pretty ineffectual, who really can’t get things done — after shedding that character, when Kalief passed, I was like, I just want to do something. And I can. I’m not fucking Caputo!

What do you hope that a series like Time will accomplish?

The hope is that it will create a conversation, and people will start talking. I learned a bunch of stuff about the prison system working on Orange, but not until really taking on Kalief’s story did my eyes open up to parts of the system I had no idea about. Just simple facts, like the idea that a 16-year-old — this is all legal — can be abducted by the police on the street, put in jail — that there are hundreds of thousands of people sitting in jail, innocent until proven guilty, while they wait for trial. That somebody could actually sit in jail for three years and not receive a trial — I had no idea that was possible in this country. And it’s not only possible, it’s happening all the time. Kalief’s story is just one of many.

What makes Kalief interesting is that everybody would have taken a plea. They use jail to get pleas. And he said no, he refused, every step of the way. So I think in the end it’s just to shine some light. Just for people to get the bigger idea. Prisons are so tucked away and so not talked about, it’s so easy to forget there are people there. We have 8 million people inside our system, 2 million who are in jail now — from our country. People don’t know some of these things.

I do think the country has started talking about prison reform and what actually goes on in prisons more in the past couple years, and while it’s obviously not the job of a TV show to actually change policy, I think shows like OITNB and the Kalief Browder series are important just to remind people that these are humans and these things do happen.

I’m with you. I think [creator] Jenji [Kohan] did it with Orange — she gave voices to people who are tucked away. I don’t think Orange is the New Black is the beginning of it all but it’s certainly sparked a lot of people’s awareness. The system is so huge; where do you begin? I think you begin my humanizing it. You have to realize these are people. We have to start there. That Kalief could be brought in front of judges 30 times over three years and not one person looked over that piece of paper and saw this beautiful kid standing in front of him —to me, that’s the horror. Everybody just doing their job, doing it by rote. Cool Hand Luke says, “Calling it a job don’t make it right, boss.”

God help us all, Nick!

Especially now. God help us all! We’re in rough times. Just buckle down and stay together.

 

Time: The Kalief Browder Story airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on Spike.