Almost one year ago today, The New Yorker published the story of a young man named Kalief Browder, who spent three years on Rikers Island without being convicted of a crime. Accused of stealing a backpack in 2010 at the age of 16, he was held on Rikers for more than 1,000 days waiting for a trial that never happened. His brutal detention included, among other abuses, two years in solitary confinement and beatings by officers and inmates. This tragedy of criminal justice was further compounded last June when, two years after his case was dismissed for lack of evidence, Browder, 22, committed suicide.
On this week’s podcast, New Yorker staff writer Jennifer Gonnerman – who brought Browder’s story to light and has been reporting on the criminal justice system for nearly two decades – joins ProPublica senior editor Joe Sexton. Here Gonnerman discusses how she came to tell this story, its aftermath and why, even with the world of hurt that inhabits the criminal justice system, she remains driven to report on it.
Highlights from the conversation:
- The Bronx court considered its backlog, which contributed to the three-year wait for Browder’s case to get through the system, normal. “The Bronx courthouse is living in its own world in a sense, where things that might seem outrageous to Kalief or to reporter, there they just tell you, ‘Well that’s business as usual,’” said Gonnerman. “It’s only when an outsider comes in and shines a spotlight on it do the folks who actually work there, day in and day out, start to see it in a slightly different way.” (6:07)
- Browder, who maintained his innocence for all three years on Rikers, struggled with his release. “He could never seem to reconcile what had happened. One day he’s a prisoner, and the next day they just let him go with no fanfare, no apology, no explanation,” said Gonnerman. “They acted like it was just okay, and it wasn’t okay.” (8:54)
- Despite the high profile of Gonnerman’s piece on Browder – it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize – she says media attention alone won’t trigger the drastic change needed. “I’ve been writing about prisons since the late 90s, and the situation was just as horrific then as it is today,” she said. “The enormous bureaucracy that is built up in the so-called prison industrial complex – dismantling that is going to take an extraordinary effort and political will.” (12:10)