Friday, June 12, 2015

An American Dream Deferred and Detained

Kalief Browder was 16 when he was arrested for stealing a backpack. After the arrest, he spent 3 years in the infamous Riker's Island waiting for a trial that never came. In fact, he was never officially charged with a crime. He was simply left to rot for three years, two of which he spent in solitary confinement, a cruel and inhumane punishment for anybody, let alone a 16 year old alleged shoplifter. 

This story would be awful enough if it ended there. Unfortunately, the real ending to this story is even more tragic, albeit sadly predictable.
 A few days ago, he took his own life.

This is a complete and utter failure of the entire justice system. Why is he in Riker's for petty theft? Why is he in solitary confinement? Why is the abuse of prisoners openly accepted? Why didn't he get a timely trial? How the fuck did we let this happen?

Kalief's death is a direct result of the broken justice system. John Oliver recently exposed one aspect in particular, our ridiculous bail system, and it helps explain Kalief's story. He was unable to raise $3,000 bail and unwilling to take a plea bargain, which would admit guilt, so he waited for a trial to prove his innocence. In prison, Kalief was beat by correction officers and inmates, all on video. This was in pretrial detention. He was not even serving a sentence! After charges against him were dismissed in 2013, Mayor de Blasio ordered solitary confinement for 16-17 year olds to stop. He didn't address the issue of waiting three years for trial or the issue of guards beating inmates or the issue of minors serving at Riker's in the first place, but I guess it's a start. Blasio claims he wants to raise the age requirement for solitary confinement, and that would be a wise decision, considering Kenan Davis, an 18 year old inmate, just killed himself in Riker's this past Wednesday (the second suicide at Riker's in 2015). Of course, considering the other horror stories. like Albert Woodfox, who spent 42 YEARS in solitary confinement for a charge that was overturned twice, he should just go ahead and ban solitary all together.

Even Republicans (well, one anyway) realize what a tragedy this was and that justice in America is simply not applied equally for whites and people of color. And we all know it doesn't apply to the rich and the poor equally either.

The rich can make most of their issues with the law go away by paying high priced lawyers and large fines. At most they might spend some time on house arrest. The relationship between people in poverty and the law is so far removed from that of the rich it has become a tv trope. Once a poor person becomes entangled in the "justice" system it's almost impossible to get out. They don't have the money for attorneys so they get harsher punishments. They can't pay the fines or bail so they have to spend time in jail (which should be outlawed anyway; as a society, we decided debtors prisons were immoral centuries ago). They spend time in jail or at court and they can't work, and most poor people don't have jobs where they can take time off, so they don't get paid. When they try to better themselves by looking for a better job, now they have a criminal record, decreasing their chances of finding one. They take some college courses to improve their career options but can't afford the supplies necessary, so they end up taking desperate measures. 

Or as in Kalief's case, they get falsely imprisoned and tortured. Let's say he did steal the backpack. Think about what that means. He was trying to get the very basic necessity to better himself: a bag to carry his school materials. After he was released from Riker's he was taking classes. He wanted to succeed, but the horrors of his time in prison damaged him permanently. The system is so completely stacked against the success of so many young people that he had no chance. He didn't fall through a crack in the system, he fell through a carefully crafted chasm.

Kalief's story resonates with me for many reasons, but largely because I see many of the kids I have worked with when I look at his pictures. I understand the importance of long term interventions. And I understand the importance of short term interventions, like providing a backpack. Where I work, Pathways/Senderos, we recently started our annual backpack project. We provide every one of our students, and their siblings if we can, with backpacks filled with school and hygiene supplies. Wherever there are school districts with a high percentage of the population living in poverty, there is a high absentee rate in the first week of school. A lot of these absences are attributed to students not having basic necessities. They end up falling behind and never catching up. They are low on self esteem to begin with, and their difficulty in school affirms their worst doubts about themselves. That in turn affirms some of the teachers' worst doubts, and many children simply never receive a proper education. Without a proper education, they often turn to a life of crime or become stuck in low paying jobs. The American Dream is a lie

"The American Dream" is dead.

This is the cycle of poverty that is so difficult to break; it requires long term intervention to change, but it also takes small, positive actions. A friendly inquiry into someone's life. Extra help with homework after school. A new backpack. These small actions can provide hope and momentary relief, and when they begin to add up, they lead to substantial, positive change. 

The story of Kalief Browder is so disturbing because of how it exposes the broken justice system and our failure to treat mental health issues in this country; it also reflects our despicable attitude toward the poor, an attitude I encounter a lot as an advocate for poverty stricken youth. I feel like I've met dozens of Kalief Browders. I see how individuals and the system (education, justice, health care, you name it) count them out or even actively discourage them. 
Many of the students I have worked with have similar stories as Kalief. It is my goal to help them avoid a similar ending.

I Love You All...Class Dismissed.

1 comment:

Nick Jake said...

"Fell through a carefully crafted chasm" it