Spike TV’s docu-series TIME: The Kalief Browder Story walked viewers through the unimaginable and horrifying experience that Kalief Browder endured at Rikers Island for allegedly stealing a backpack in May 2010. Because of a bag, a faulty identification from the victim, and a vicious justice system, Kalief spent three years of his childhood in the prison system while his case was wrapped up in a number of technicalities and misrepresented information. In Rikers, the once playful and charismatic teenager was verbally and physically abused by inmates and guards. When he chose to speak up or fight back, he was thrown into solitary confinement for egregious amounts of time. As a result, Kalief’s mental health suffered tremendously and despite attempting to conform to society as a 21-year-old, he couldn’t and commited suicide in June 2015.
“The Kalief Browder Story is a witches brew of everything gone wrong in the criminal justice system,” Mark Soler, Executive Director of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy and founder of the Stop Solitary for Kids campaign, said. “Every single entity that was supposed to do a job, failed. The police did not investigate his case adequately. The people at Rikers did not provide a minimum level of safety when he was inside. The doctors that he came into contact with, mistakenly thought he started with a mental illness and gave him powerful anti-psychotic drugs, which had terrible consequences. The prosecutor misrepresented the situation to the court; the judges brought shame to the profession by allowing all those continuances, and Kalief’s own lawyer failed him.”
Unfortunately, the system betrayed Kalief, but it doesn’t have to destroy others. Stop Solitary for Kids is a campaign launched to eliminate the detrimental method of solitary confinement as an appropriate form of punishment. The campaign, in which Kalief’s mother Venida Browder was a board member, seeks to bring awareness to the issue while providing solutions and alternative programs that foster positive change in youth rather than harm.
Kalief’s story unveiled the devastating truth of our juvenile justice system, but unfortunately, it was at the hand of his death. With that being said, his death will not go unnoticed. VIBE spoke with Soler as well as Staff Attorney at the Center for Children’s Law and Policy and Campaign Manager, Jennifer Lutz on their organization’s mission, the impact of Kalief’s story, and what happens next on the path toward reform.
VIBE: Can you elaborate on the Stop Solitary for Kids campaign and its mission?
Mark Soler: Everyday there are about 50,000 or more young people who are held in juvenile facilities away from their home. There’s another 5,000 or so who are held in prisons and jails everyday. Solitary confinement is in many juvenile facilities around the United States. We don’t have careful reports on how many kids are put into solitary confinement, but surveys find about a third of young people have an experience of being held in solitary. And about half of those were held for more than 24 hours. Solitary confinement is a terrible experience for young people. It is emotionally damaging and psychologically numbing. The only thing that would come close to it is if you imagine you went into your own bathroom at home and took everything out of it — the radio, the magazines, everything off of the counter — leave it completely bare, and then close the door and look at it for the next hour. It’s very hard to do. The lack of stimuli in those places is a terrifying experience.
So what we are trying to do in the campaign is to end the use of solitary confinement. Now, that does not mean if a child is out of control, assaulting other kids or staff in the facility, that there’s nothing the staff can do. On the contrary, if a child is out of control, the staff should separate them from other people they’re getting into trouble with. Put them in a quiet place in another part of the room or their own, and let them calm down. The issue is, once they calm down, they should be released to go back into regular programming. But what actually happens is that the young people get into trouble, talk back to a staff member or get into a pushing match with somebody else, and they get put into their rooms and they’re left there for long periods of time. In many facilities, the minimum is four hours and it can go on for eight to 16 hours or longer. That is totally unacceptable. So we want to end this practice. And the way we want to do this is to bring insiders and outsiders together. To truly end this problem, we need to involve the people who put children into solitary, meaning the people who run juvenile correctional agencies and the superintendents of juvenile facilities and staff. So we have three partner organizations (Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators, Center for Juvenile Reform at Georgetown University, Justice Policy Institute) all over the United States, to build on the strength of agencies that are doing the right thing and spreading the word of what they’re doing.
What’s the difference between solitary confinement and confinement as forms of punishment?
MS: Room confinement, which is also called isolation or segregation, is appropriate when a child is out of control. Not only is it acceptable, but it’s the strong thing to do to separate a child from getting into a conflict and giving them time to calm down. Everything other than an immediate, short-term time for the child to calm down, is solitary confinement.
Teenagers are going to talk back to the staff, and as expected, staff may become aggravated. How do you build a better relationship between staff and inmates and create trust and compassion between the two parties?
MS: That is the fundamental question in all of this. First of all, there needs to be leadership from the top. There needs to be a clear policy in the facility that we are not going to treat these young people as prisoners. We’re going to treat them as young people who are having trouble, who have potential in life, and need support. And we’re going to make sure they stay safe while they’re here, and help them as much as we possibly can. There needs to be a culture in the facility and in the agency that is a culture of supporting young people rather than a culture that is rigid and punitive. Rigid and punitive is the old way of doing things. [It’s] what you saw at Rikers Island. There has to be an environment that is not punitive but instead, looks to the goodness and potential of the young people that are there.
Then we need to make sure that the staff are trained and they are comfortable handling any situation. Most staff get training for handling conflict, where the training is about 20 percent on how to talk to the kids and deescalate and 80 percent is how to get physical control of them — how to get control of their hands and arms and put them down on the floor. We don’t like those kinds of training. There is a training called Safe Crisis Management that comes out of a program in Pennsylvania where 80 percent of training is how to talk to young people who are in conflict, and only 20 percent is about how to get physical control. Safe Crisis Management spends so much time emphasizing that staff need not obey their intuitive response. An intuitive response when a kid talks back to you is to say I’m in charge. Intuitive responses for staff is to bring other staff in and say to the child, we have more power than you. The training has to train the intuitive reaction out of the staff and replace it with a calm, patient demeanor, which asks the young person to tell me what the real problem is. Young people don’t just fly off the handle for no reason. There’s almost always a reason. It may not be a reason that adults think is a good reason, but it’s a reason. They may have learned that they’re not getting released when they went to court. They may have gotten a call from a family member who told them that mom is having some health problems or heard from someone in the family that [their] girlfriend is hanging around with somebody else. None of them may be good reasons for getting into a fight, but it may be that the young person is very upset and needs a way to express that. In most cases, these police officers at the training academy are only two or three years older than the kids we’re talking about. So they should be able to empathize.
We’re talking about kids Kalief’s age or younger, but as studies have shown, even in your early 20s, the brain has not developed fully. Should there be an age limit on solitary confinement?
MS: Solitary should be thrown out, but it is much harder to do in adult facilities. With adult facilities, you don’t start with the presumption of innocence of adolescence. I’m not talking in a legal sense as in you’re innocent until proven guilty. When we’re talking about young people, we believe they can change because we’ve seen them grow. We know from the brain research that people’s brains are developing until their mid-20s. The part of the brain that develops last is the pre-frontal cortex. That’s the part of the brain that covers executive functions or the planning functions. It’s the part of the brain that understands there could be future consequences. A 16-year-old does not have a fully developed pre-frontal cortex. That means that they cannot understand the future consequences of irresponsible behavior now in the way that a 30-year-old can understand it. Adults coming to 17-year-olds and saying don’t do this, you’re going to get in trouble later, is not going to be very effective. In addition, we know that young people are highly influenced by their peers. For most teenagers, they are likely to be more influenced by what their peers do than what their parents tell them to do. That’s not to say their parents are unimportant, but most teenagers are more likely to do what their peers want to do than what their parents want them to do. For those reasons, we have a different way of thinking about young people. When you’re talking about inmates in their 30s and 40s and older, we don’t come with that kind of thinking about them. They are older, their brains have developed, and they get much less sympathy from the public and from the people who run these facilities. That makes it much harder to make changes.
How do you think Kalief’s story gave momentum to this campaign as well as impacted decision-makers or people in power to create change?
MS: The facts of what happened to Kalief are terrible. A lot of them came out in Jennifer Gonnerman’s article in The New Yorker, but the filmmakers [at Spike TV] went further than anybody else. They went further than the police and Jennifer was able to do. They really set out to first understand the story about what happened to Kalief, and then tell the complete story. I have been working on juvenile justice reform for the past 39 years, and I have seen many situations that are parts of what happened to Kalief. I’ve never seen a situation where he was failed by every single agency that was responsible for him. So I think the aggregation of horrible failure is one of the things that is so dramatically impressive about the situation. The comprehensiveness [in the series] of the things that went wrong really has an impact. The other is the way the filmmakers have told the story in an unfolding way. In each episode you learn more of what’s going on. That’s not just putting film clips together; that’s actually telling a story. The storytellers have thought a lot about how to unwind the story in a way that provides entertainment. It’s not happy entertainment, but it’s entertainment that keeps people engaged.
Jennifer Lutz: In addition to working with administrators and directors of facilities and agencies, we also want to provide other ways to address solitary confinement for kids. Specifically, one of those ways is law making. So we’ve seen in response to the series, a general awareness of this issue within the normal viewing public, but also lawmakers and policy makers in states and counties are getting a better understanding of what solitary confinement actually is. [The series] really puts an experiential spin on solitary confinement, and it helps people realize just how horrible it is. So having that footage and allowing us to see it, has raised awareness about the issue of solitary confinement in a new way, and hopefully that will be helpful for those who are involved in law making at the state and federal level and also for people in communities to get involved locally because that’s where a lot of the reform will take place. We are also seeing in facilities that administrators and staff are saying this is really an issue, whereas usually, we thought of being locked up as the end of the problem. But the truth is, that’s really the beginning of a big chapter for someone who is locked up. So it’s for the first time, pulling up the curtain on what happens inside of the juvenile justice system.
How do we counteract the damage that’s already been done?
MS: In terms of the medication, there are psychiatrists who will prescribe medication and not monitor the individuals who are taking the medication and will continue to do it. When it happens in a correctional setting or happens to somebody who has undergone this kind of trauma, it can be devastating. We need to make sure when doctors prescribe powerful anti-psychotic medication, that they carefully monitor.
“To truly end this problem, we need to involve the people who put children into solitary.”
There is no way of erasing the traumatic experience that Kalief had because that kind of trauma would stay with Kalief his whole life because of how powerful of an experience it was. The question is how do we incorporate love and support of young people to overcome that trauma? What we have to do is to stress the positives in their life and try to arrange more. In [episode five], [Kalief] kept saying I want to get a job, and the truth is he needed it. For a young person to grow up healthy in our world, they need a couple of things. One thing is they need at least one adult who believes in them completely and will give them undivided love. Kalief had that. He had a mother who gave him undivided love. She was an amazing woman. The second thing is children need to be involved in something. They need to be engaged either in school or as they get older, in work. The third thing is they need to develop their skills. One thing you see with Kalief is what a sweet, young guy he was. He thought deeply about whether he should admit to something he didn’t do. He seemed to think of it as a moral issue and he didn’t want to repeat the experience that his brother had. And so Kalief had terrific skills and talent, but was not able to grow those talents and build them up in a way that would give him a place in society. He kept talking about trying to find his place, but he couldn’t shed the burden that this horrible three-year trauma had brought on him.
You’ve mentioned alternatives to solitary confinement like taking away movie privileges or punishments of that nature, but it’s been acknowledged in the series that some of these kids are more violent than Kalief. What are some other alternatives besides ones that seem a bit softer?
MS: The first thing to think about is how to make sure kids don’t get into this trouble. Young people who are incarcerated should be busy all the time. They go to school for five or six hours a day, but the day is longer than that. The most effective facilities, the ones that have the least amount of conflict, are the ones that have young people engaged in structured activities. If they’re not in school, they can be in groups or counseling sessions. Every facility is in a community and every community has leaders who can come in and talk to the young people. Every community has people in business, including people who have overcome the odds to come in. Every community has health and mental health practitioners who can talk about issues that are directly related to young people. So we encourage the facilities to bring in volunteers to talk about themselves, but also answer questions that kids have. Then we have young people who do violent things, and there are a lot of sanctions that can be applied to them that they won’t like, including writing an essay of an apology to the person they may have hit or gotten into an argument with. For many kids, writing is very difficult. So that’s a sanction that actually means something. Not being allowed to do the things that other kids do is a sanction. The problem with solitary is it kills their soul. We want to make the message that you can’t hurt other people, but if a message we’re sending is we can get three or five staff to overpower you and put you in your room, that is the worst kind of message to send to children. We want children to understand that when there’s a conflict, we resolve it by talking things out.
These alternatives are sometimes called soft, but the important thing is what does the sanction mean to the young person? There’s research that shows combining positive rewards with sanctions is much more effective than just applying the sanctions. And it’s much harder to insist on using the alternatives. It’s easy for a staff person to react to a young person breaking a rule by coming down on them. It’s much harder to use patience and talk a kid down. Most staff have a lot of trouble with it, especially doing it more than a couple of minutes. When we train staff, we say you may have to be talking to this child for an hour at a time, but as long as you’re talking to them, they’re not causing any disruption. The more you talk with them, the more you’re going to learn what’s going on.
JL: You’re using that old school punitive mindset, they seem “soft.” But this problem requires a solution that shifts that mindset. We suggest folks do that because we know that it’s worked in Ohio, Mississippi, and Massachusetts. There are other ways to respond to kids. Part of what we see and what we know about young people is that they respond much better to incentives than punishments. So part of this programming is having things for them to do, making sure the facilities have options and things for kids to do that they want to do. That as incentive to maintain positive behavior is actually really powerful. Rather than looking at their behavior that gets solitary confinement as the problem, we should see it as the result of the entire facility. So shifting the culture of the environment, could prevent a lot. And when we talk about kids in gangs, it’s really important that we not lose sight of the fact that they’re kids, but what are gangs for most of these kids? It’s a way to belong. It’s a way to feel a part of something. What we have to do to work with those kids is let them be a part of something else. So create more of a sense of community. These kids are not a special breed of kids. Like everyone else, they respond to things. If we treat them like criminals or animals, that’s probably how they’re going to respond. But if we give them different options, it may be counterintuitive for some folks, but it actually works.
Do you think Rikers Island will ever shut down permanently?
MS: When you see the series, you think there’s no way of fixing this. This is such a terrible place that we would just like bulldozers to bulldoze it all into the ground and start again. There are much better ways to incarcerate people than what they do at Rikers. You can lock people up and they can be locked up for considerable periods of time, but if they’re in smaller facilities, there’s a much better chance that they will not be violent and staff will have a chance to get to know them. They have to break up these gigantic facilities and create much smaller facilities. The problem is the political problem of NIMBY — not in my backyard. People are not going to want New York City jails in their neighborhood. And that’s a tough one. I remember 25 years ago when there was a single juvenile detention facility in New York City. The woman who was the head of Department of Juvenile Justice at the time was a friend of mine, and she used to have endless community meetings about people’s fear of having criminals in their community. They were afraid of what would happen to the property value. So there was a lot of resistance. I really commend the [New York] mayor for taking a position of closing down Rikers.
How can the community get involved?
MS: Everybody lives in a community, and there is a juvenile facility in that community or nearby. If people want to know about [solitary confinement], go visit the juvenile facility. See what it’s like inside. But the whole sense of incarceration, of what it means to be locked in and the kinds of places that these young people live in when they are incarcerated, everybody should get a first-hand experience of that.