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Teen Spends Years At Rikers Island Without Being Sentenced

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The Bill of Rights guarantees us a speedy trial, but it's hard to imagine any reasonable explanation for the three years that Kalief Browder spent in New York City's big jail complex on Rikers Island. Browder spent most of those three years in solitary confinement - that despite the fact that he was never sentenced, never convicted, never even tried for any offense. Jen Gonnerman reports Browder's story in the current issue of the New Yorker magazine, and she joins us from New York to talk about. Welcome.

JEN GONNERMAN: Thank you so much.

SIEGEL: And first, I'd like you to describe for us the offense that Kalief Browder of the Bronx was charged with when he was almost 17 years old.

GONNERMAN: Sure. One night in the spring of 2010, Kalief and a friend walking home late from a party in the Bronx, walking down the street and a police car pulled them over. A cop got out and said that a man in the back of his police car had accused Kalief and his friend of robbing him. And Kalief protested that he was innocent. There was nothing found in his pockets or his friends pockets, but they took them into the precinct, into to the station house anyway. Kalief thought it was a, you know, a misunderstanding that might take an hour or two to clear up, but that's not what happened. He ended up spending three years in jail.

SIEGEL: Now, the key point here is that Kalief Browder, who was a high school kid when all this began, said he didn't do it and would not cop a plea in order to get out of jail at any point.

GONNERMAN: Exactly. I mean, if he had pled guilty, he could've, you know, not done too much time in jail. But he said he was innocent from the moment that the cops approached him. And he continued to say that for three years and he turned down multiple plea offers. So after this whole three-year drama in which he was confined in Rikers Island, as you mentioned much of it in solitary confinement, the charges were just dropped. And so he sort of left there with the opportunity to go home, but just feeling like did I just endure all this for nothing? What was the point of that whole thing?

SIEGEL: The three years - New York State has a law that defines a speedy trial. You're supposed to be tried within six months, which for somebody who can't make bail is already a long time to spend in detention. But how did six months turn into three years?

GONNERMAN: You know, New York state has something that's slightly different from your usual speedy trial law. It's called a ready rule, and the rule stipulates that in all felony cases except for homicides, they must be ready for trial within six months of arraignment or else the charges can be dismissed. Well, what was going on here is that time was moving in two different ways, so every month, or six weeks, when Kalief Browder would come into the courtroom, the prosecutor would say people not ready. We request one week. And then the judge would set the next court date four weeks or six weeks or eight weeks because that's what worked with everyone's schedule - the judge's schedule, the defense attorney's schedule, the prosecutor's schedule. But that would only count as one week against the six-month speedy trial clock. This pattern went on for almost the entire time. And that's ultimately why he ended up spending three years in jail.

SIEGEL: One of the most horrific scenes in your story is Kalief Browder recalling what happened when guards at Rikers lined up the kids to punish them - the adolescent inmates.

GONNERMAN: Sure. Back in April, the very first time I met Kalief Browder, you know, he said oh, do you want hear what happened, you know, a few days after I arrived? He was at that point living in a dorm, 50 teenage boys in sort of an open-dorm setting. There was a fight late at night in the dark. The officers weren't sure who was involved. They just started pulling kids out of bed and taking them into the hall, throwing them up against the wall and demanding to know who did it, and hitting each of them as they went down the line and ultimately beating some of the kids pretty badly. And after this whole encounter ended, they tell the inmates OK, you can either go to the medical clinic right now, but if you tell the civilians staff there what just happened, we're going to send you to solitary, or you can just pretend nothing happened and go back to bed. And Kalief and the other boys said OK, we'll just pretend nothing happened and they went back to sleep. He told me this story in April, and I thought to myself what is going on here? And then come four months later, the U.S. attorney comes out with this devastating report that describes numerous incidents exactly like the one Kalief told me about and many, many other horrific stories and just put the whole thing in an even more sort of disturbing light.

SIEGEL: If all this weren't bad enough, 700 days - oF three years - Kalief Browder spent in solitary confinement. Why? What happened?

GONNERMAN: You know, he was put in solitary confinement multiple times after getting to fights. But just to put this in perspective, solitary confinement became a very sort of popular management tool used in the New York City jail system to control sort of unruly inmates and just to sort of try to maintain control in a very out of control situation.

SIEGEL: How does he describe all of that time spent in solitary, which I guess is essentially 23 out of 24 hours in a cell, alone?

GONNERMAN: You know, he almost - when I interviewed him, he was almost at a loss for words to describe it. I mean, obviously he was lonely, depressed, stressed. But one of the stories he told me about being in solitary confinement that really stuck with me was about the schooling situation. So on Rikers Island, if you're in the regular adolescent jail, you're taken to a school every day. You attend classes, at least that's the way it's supposed to work, but once you're put in solitary confinement, there is no leaving your cell, so there is no going to school every day. So Kalief, age 17, 18, is sitting in a cell all day. And they have something which they call cell study. So an officer would come in the morning and slip a worksheet or two or three under your door and tell you, you know, this is due in three days. And so essentially he had to sort of teach himself. Of course, many of the inmates didn't do any of this, but Kalief said to himself you know, I'm stuck in here. I've got to try and do something. So he'd sit there and diligently do his work by himself in this 12-by-seven foot box. And then say Wednesday would come when the work was supposed to be due and then nobody would come to pick it up. I mean, sometimes they did, but often they didn't. And so he would be banging on the door, you know, sort of lone voice saying hey, like, where is the correctional officer to pick up my work? And this is just one small detail in the whole story, but it just stuck with me in that I felt it spoke volumes about the sort of apathy and sort of utter disregard for the basic rights of Kalief Browder.

SIEGEL: There's a new policy, which is - New York has announced - no more solitary for 16 and 17-year-olds who are detained there. Do you think that's going to greatly improve circumstances for kids detained there, or does it mean that more kids are sleeping in a big dormitory setting and are just going to be terrorized by the gangs that run the place?

GONNERMAN: You know, it's very hard to say. As of last week, there were 51 16 and 17-year-olds being held in solitary confinement. And so they've said they're going to get that number down to zero by the end of the year. Well, we'll see if that happens. It's sort of easier said than done. And I'm sort of skeptical about how this will all go on. And, you know, the overuse of solitary in the New York City jail system has been a huge problem for years. And so while the rest of the country seems to have woken up to the fact that solitary can create very, very serious sort of mental health problems and has moved away from it, New York City has, until recently, been moving in the opposite direction. So they have a lot to sort of undue in terms of their sort of culture of excessive solitary confinement and this is the very first step.

SIEGEL: Kalief Browder now is a plaintiff in a lawsuit over his treatment. How's he doing? What are his spirits like?

GONNERMAN: You know, he's been out of jail now for 16 months, but you can still see the toll that jail, and particularly solitary, took on him. You know, he told me recently that he's still having flashbacks to his time on Rikers Island and that in some ways, they're becoming even more frequent. And I asked him, you know, what is an example? What kind of flashbacks are you really having? Is it when you see a police car drive by or a prison show on TV? And he said no, it could be anything. It could be his mom handing him a plate of rice and beans. And then he starts thinking about how he had that meal when he was locked up in solitary on Rikers and he thought about how lonely, hungry, depressed he was when he was there. And suddenly, he's, you know, in his mind he's just right back there in solitary confinement.

SIEGEL: Well, Jen Gonnerman, thank you very much for talking with us about your reporting and your story about Kalief Browder.

GONNERMAN: Thanks so much, Robert.

SIEGEL: Jen Gonnerman's article "Before The Law" appears in this week's New Yorker magazine. She did ask New York's Department of Correction and the Bronx district attorney about Kalief Browder, both said they can't comment because of Browder's lawsuit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.