New York, New York. 28 July, 2017. A man walks by a photo of the deceases Kalief Browder. In protest the policies of the Trump Administration and threats to various communities in America, artists, activists, and community members participated in a solidarity march to bring attention to those marginalized. The platforms were: respect for lives, economic and social equality, diversity, and freedom of expression. The participants marched in silence in white attire, in homage to the 1917 Silent Protest Parade. Kindred Arts was the event organizer. Photo credit: Sachelle Babbar

Remembering Kalief Browder means bringing forth talks of prison abolition

9 mins read

Three years after Kalief Browder took his life following the traumatic experience of being detained for 1,120 days in Riker’s Island jail, with more than 800 of them in solitary confinement, we need to move towards prison abolition.

On the three year anniversary of the suicide of Kalief Browder, trending on my Twitter timeline was a video of a 10-year-old Black boy, handcuffed and sitting on a Chicago police cruiser.

He whimpered while urine streaked down his pants. Two cops stood in front of him. Behind the person filming with a phone, you could hear mothers yelling at the white police officers. They plead and shouted, explaining to the nonchalant cops that the boy ran because he saw the shooting of his cousin.

After the officers removed the handcuffs, a woman, presumably his grandmother, reached for the boy. Crying, he went to her.

This is America.

The video will crescendo then die out in the social media world, but the boy’s trauma is likely to be lifelong.

I am not comfortable with this America. I never will be.

Incidents such as these are not micro-agressions or institutionalized racism where subtle insidious acts chip away at our existence. Though they make up a significant part of racial biogotry  today, the daily inhumane acts that law enforcement carry out on people, including children that they swear to protect, become more disturbing.

More jarring, the videos and pictures circulate like cable news loops. This draws me to wonder, what happens  when the actors of a long-and-oft performed script, as well as the audiences of the world, watch?

Indeed, police and state terrorism against Black and brown folk is as old as America. My inheritance has been stories told by my grandmother and father of beatings, lynchings, rapes and killings. Though, I knew the stories to be true, there is a markedly profound difference of being comforted by kin while talking about atrocities in recent and past histories than seeing them on a social media post as I scroll down.

As a 42-year-old woman who will add a year to my own timeline in a matter of weeks, I am traumatized. How does a young person or a non-Black person experience these moments of gross inhumanity? And if they are not moved, at least superficially, I am further worried. We have become robots. Programmed on command to not flinch for injustice.

The images become food that we consume then digest and defecate. Like corn, the visuals fill our daily media intake without nutrients. In actually, our moral fiber and social engagement are malnourished.

To see an unarmed, non-threatening Black man get jumped by five police officers or a Black woman thrown to the ground with her breasts exposed and arm twisted until it almost breaks have become natural acts of violence—a trending reality for disenfranchised people that feed a machine without repercussion.


23 February 2016. New York. Demonstrators hold aloft a symbolic coffin bearing Kalief Browder’s name as they rally near the gate of City Hall to close down Riker’s Island. Browder’s brother, Akeem Kalief is holding the coffin. Photo credit: Albin Lohr-Jones

I flood with anger, grief, numbness and then the nothingness. I cannot think about it for too long because I must move on; however, when thinking about Kalief Browder, I cannot escape the melancholy and bitterness so easily today.

There is one story that haunts me. That is of Kalief Browder. Arrested at 16-years-old for a crime he did not commit. Then kept incarcerated because his family could not make the $900 of the $3,000 bail. When they could, his bail was denied.

While incarcerated, he was offered a deal to plea out, meaning that if he would be released if he accepted a guilty verdict. Knowing his innocence, he refused. Subsequently, his stance led to him being further punished.

Browder spent most of his time in solitary confinement. He was beaten by correctional officers regularly, and endured countless fights with other inmates in jail. Several times, he tried to kill himself.

After three years in Rikers Island, never standing trial or found guilty of any crime, Browder was released. He was far from the the bright-eyed teen locked up at the prime of youth. He was forever traumatized.

With the help of family and supporters, Browder sued the New York State Corrections department. As reported by Essence, 80 percent of the people detained in Riker’s Island have not been found guilty or innocent because they have not gone to trial.

Attempting to re-enter back into a “normal life,” Browder enrolled in school and involved himself in campaigns against incarceration. He participated in numerous events, and went on talk shows, as well as, struck up acquaintances with celebrities who found his story inspirational

His case and experience became an emblem of everything wrong with the justice system.

But, in the end, nothing could shake the mental health issues he developed while in jail as a kid.

Browder hung himself from the window of his mother’s home. The same view he looked out of growing up. His mother, Venida Browder, he fought valiantly for his release, discovered his body. She died a year later.

His death thrust into America’s face that the justice system was not only inherently flawed, but a goddamn fraud designed to break-then-make money from the poor and disenfranchised.

From the multitude of protests and scandals unveiling the atrocities and corruption taking place for decades at the island-prison, New York’s mayor Bill de Blasio announced to shutter the facilities in a 10-year-plan. However, the jail and its inmates would move into Black and brown communities in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan.

That is prison reform.

Total Destruction Only Solution

Browder’s story is a tiny pebble in a flood of stories that make up the prison industrial complex in the United States.

To date, an estimated 6,613,500 people make up the correctional population which includes those persons incarcerated, in prisons or local jails, and on probation and parole, according to the Bureau of Justice.

Prison Policy chart on where are people in the correctional system housed.

The 2018 data of Prison Policy reports that about 2.3 million of those under correctional supervision are housed in state and federal prisons, juvenile facilities, Indian jail, local jail, immigration detention centers and military prisons. The rest are on parole or probation.

The Bureau of Justice estimates that 1 in 36 adults living in the United States are in the system.

This is America.

When I heard the term of prison abolition, I thought it meant the freeing of those who were falsely arrested and jailed.

I stood corrected when I interviewed Black Lives Matter lawyer, Nana Gyamfi who is a prison abolitionist. She explained, “We believe that the prison systems in America should be dismantled.”

The premise for prison abolitionists is that the incarceration industry was set up on a system of racial inequalities in which non-whites, and more so, African-Americans were incarcerated after enslavement so that the United States could continue to profit from them. At the same time, detention centers are inhumane and rehabilitation of criminal offenders is at best, a joke.

Angela Davis, a prominent counterculture activist who has challenged the prison system for well over four decades said in an interview with Alternet:

We might talk about the U.S. as a prison nation, and that not only refers to the fact that we have the largest prison population and the largest number of prisons and the largest rate of incarceration. It not only refers to the fact that racism is largely what has driven that soaring prison population, but also the fact that carceral institutions determine the way our children are educated. It refers to the fact that the health-care system is very much linked to this what you call mass criminalization.

Gyamfi is part of a growing movement to get rid of prisons and jails. While some advocates say most of the system should go, Gyamfi says all.

“So where do we put the killers and child molesters?,” my conservative ghost mind asked. I had to check myself.

The fact is most of those incarcerated are for non-violent crimes, and most likely drug-related. Now we know that the “war on drugs” was a political and cultural scheme jump started by a Republican Administration and continued by both Republicans and Democrats. While it was lucrative for a handful, it killed numerous communities and cities across the country.

Snowfall Was Really Ground Zero

Downtown Los Angeles. Photo Credit Dillon Shock

The era of high incarceration rates and “Just say no to drugs” campaigns were all too real for me. I grew up in South Central Los Angeles in the 70s, 80s and 90s. In the 80s and 90s, the crack cocaine epidemic went viral due to the CIA funneling tons of cocaine for crack to be produced and distributed Black and Latino communities.

Journalist Gary Webb who then worked for the Mercury News in San Jose uncovered what is known as the CIA-crack scandal. By the way, he was found shot in the head twice. It was ruled a suicide.

Today, the media chronicles the period in nostalgic shows like director John Singleton’s “Snowfall.” Like Singleton, I grew up in the crosshairs, and it was not a snowfall, it was like a social, cultural, political and economic atomic bomb. South Central was ground zero and nobody had fallout shelters.

From the crack cocaine crisis, the prison industrial complex, as we know it is flourishing. I mean, corporations and private owners have become multi-millionaires in a billions-dollars-a-year industry, such as Henri Wedell, George Zoley, Jeremy Mindich and Matt Sirovich who run companies that invest in the incarceration industry or lobby for more prisons.

Then there is the cultural residue that reified Black people in a cycling deviance and pathology we still try to shake in 2018 and beyond. The representation of Black people as drug addicts and drug dealers has been so cemented in the minds of Americans, that the latest drug epidemic, the heroin era that disproportionately affects white communities, is not paralleled with the crack era.

Those dope fiends from the suburbs are considered human and should be dealt with from a standpoint of compassion. While families forever torn through generations of arrests, foster care placement and death have recreated a system of bondage that has remade the process. The arrest or detention serves as the slave catchers while the processing and courts serve as the Middle Passage. And incarceration is the sugar, cotton, rice and tobacco fields.

In Ava Duvernay’s documentary 13th, it speaks of the escalation of mass incarceration since the end of chattel enslavement, with the underlying of those that have gone missing. I know many in my community and family who have disappeared permanently under many circumstances due to the prison industrial complex.

Criminal-minds with Corporate Gain

When Gyamfi mentioned the term, prison abolition, I shuttered. I had to check myself and remove the amnesia of history. Australia was set up as a penal colony for the British, as well as America. Over the years, the poorest and most destitute in Europe moved throughout America, from Canada down to Uruguay in order to jump start a new life, free of social status that also meant peasantry and criminal labels. Like Donald Trump’s grandfather

Friedrich Trump, Donald Trump’s German grandfather illegally immigrated to the US. One of his enterprises was as a barber, but the more lucrative was as a pimp. He operated a brothel. After 20 years of benignancy in the US, Trump returned back to his homeland where the country deported his ass back to America for failing to satisfy the required military service and not registering for his initial emigration to the US.

Ironically, under Donald J. Trump, prison stock has skyrocketed by 100 percent. The cash cow is now detaining immigrants, a more profitable venture. According to Human Rights First, the daily cost of detaining an immigrant is $164 a day or approximately $5,000 in general. For the average cost of incarcerating  an inmate in Federal prisons is $83.89 per day or a little over $2,500 a month.

To put this into perspective, the amount that the District of Columbia spent on a student in 2016 was $19,159. The school system is one of the highest in the nation to spend on students. New York ranks slightly higher, but pays about $60,000 a year to house an inmate.

While we continue to pour money into ineffective and dehumanizing system,what would the U.S. look like in a prison-less system. Prison abolitionist, Asha Bandele, who co-authored, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir with Patrisse Khan-Cullors, gives us back our imagination.

There are places on this planet where prisons don’t exist. There are cities in India where there are no handcuffs. Those things actually exist, and if we do anything with this book, it’s to ask you to begin to imagine what that world might look like.

It t is hard to fathom Bandele’s examples some days, as I have been robbed and held at gunpoint before. My house has been broken into, and I have seen my fair share of violations. Nonetheless, I pull on my memory of Browder, whose experience is not isolated or original. It is actually the norm, and is part of the reasons why the 10-year-old boy in Chicago is just a viral video memory in which we have done little to nothing to address.

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Kaia Niambi Shivers covers diaspora, news and features.

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