We look at the incredible story of how a 16-year-old high school sophomore from the Bronx ended up spending nearly three years locked up at the Rikers jail in New York City after he says he was falsely accused of stealing a backpack. Kalief Browder never pleaded guilty and was never convicted. Browder maintained his innocence and requested a trial, but was only offered plea deals while the trial was repeatedly delayed. Near the end of his time in jail, the judge offered to sentence him to time served if he entered a guilty plea, and warned him he could face 15 years in prison if he was convicted. But Browder still refused to accept the deal, and was only released when the case was dismissed. During this time, Browder spent nearly 800 days in solitary confinement, a juvenile imprisonment practice that the New York Department of Corrections has now banned. We are joined by reporter and author Jennifer Gonnerman, who recounts Browder’s story in the current issue of The New Yorker. We also speak with Browder’s current attorney, Paul Prestia, who has filed a lawsuit against the City of New York, the New York City Police Department, the Bronx District Attorney, and the Department of Corrections, on Browder’s behalf.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Last week, the New York City Department of Corrections announced it will stop using solitary confinement to punish adolescents held in its troubled Rikers Island jail complex, the second-largest jail system in the country. But a federal prosecutor said the city’s reforms were moving too slowly to address a, quote, “culture of violence,” and warned he may file a civil lawsuit over conditions for teenagers held in Rikers. New York is one of only two states nationwide that automatically charge 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, today we look at the incredible story of a 16-year-old high school sophomore who was jailed at Rikers Island for nearly three years after he refused to plead guilty to a crime he said he did not commit. It was May 15, 2010, when Kalief Browder was walking home from a party with his friends in the Bronx and was stopped by police based on a tip that he had robbed someone weeks earlier. He told HuffPost Live what happened next.
KALIEF BROWDER: They had searched me, and the guy actually said—at first he said I robbed him. I didn’t have anything on me. And that’s when—
MARC LAMONT HILL: When you say “nothing,” you mean no weapon and none of his property.
KALIEF BROWDER: No weapon, no money, anything he said that I allegedly robbed him for. So the guy actually changed up his story and said that I actually tried to rob him. But then another police officer came, and they said that I robbed him two weeks prior. And then they said, “We’re going to take you to the precinct, and most likely we’re going to let you go home.” But then, I never went home.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Kalief Browder did not go home for 33 months, even though he was never convicted. For nearly 800 days of that time, he was held in solitary confinement. He maintained his innocence and requested a trial, but was only offered plea deals while the trial was repeatedly delayed. Near the end of his time in jail, the judge offered to sentence him to time served if he entered a guilty plea, and told him he could face 15 years in prison if he was convicted. He refused to accept the deal and was only released when the case was dismissed.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by Jennifer Gonnerman, reporter, author, contributing editor at New York magazine, and contributing writer to The New Yorker magazine. She recounts Kalief Browder’s story in the current issue of The New Yorker in a piece headlined, “Before the Law: A boy was accused of taking a backpack. The courts took the next three years of his life.” Jennifer Gonnerman has long chronicled problems with the criminal justice system. Her book, Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett, tells the story of a woman who spent 16 years in prison for a first-time offense under New York’s Rockefeller drug laws.
And we’re joined by Kalief Browder’s current attorney, Paul Prestia, who has filed a lawsuit against the city, the NYPD—the New York Police Department—Bronx district attorney and the Department of Corrections on Browder’s behalf. Prestia is also a former assistant prosecutor in Brooklyn.