Accused of Stealing a Backpack, High School Student Jailed for Nearly Three Years Without Trial

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.

Thank goodness for that last part at least. And pray tell how is the rest of that due process?

And stories coming out of Riker's Island are horrific:

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: You know, this report came out in the course of me reporting this story. It came out in August. And back in April, when I was first interviewing Kalief—I think maybe the very first time I met him—he told me this incredible story that had happened early in his time at Rikers, a few days in, of, late at night, there had been some sort of fight in the dorm. The officers weren’t sure who—

AMY GOODMAN: There were 50 kids in the dorm.

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Right, 50 kids in the dorm.

AMY GOODMAN: In one room.

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Officers weren’t sure who was responsible, so they grabbed whoever they could find, threw them in the hall and, you know, their faces to the wall, and just started kind of trying to figure out who did it and yelling at them and smacking them in the face each time, and really beating some of the kids up. And so, Kalief tells me this incredible story of, you know, leaky noses and sort of swollen eyes. And at the end, the officers say, "OK, you know, we can either take you to the clinic, which means—and if you tell the folks who work at the clinic, the civilian medical staff, what happened, you’re going to end up in solitary. Or you can just go back to bed and pretend nothing happened." So, Kalief and the other guys say, "OK, we’ll go back to bed."

He tells me this incredible story in April. I think, that is—I didn’t doubt him, but I just thought, "Is that like a one-time thing? What is going on on Rikers Island?" I mean, I knew the conditions were very bad in the adolescent jail, but that was a level of brutality that was pretty, you know, hard to wrap your mind around. Then, come August, this report comes out, and I would encourage anybody who’s interested to read this report, because even though government reports are sometimes a little dry, this one is incredible in the level of graphic detail and the way it’s written. It just—

PAUL PRESTIA: And it’s specific to the years 2011 and 2013—


PAUL PRESTIA: —coincidentally, when Kalief was incarcerated and was in solitary confinement.

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: And this story I just described, you know, is told again and again in this report. It certainly wasn’t a one-time occurrence.