In United States law, no one is supposed to go to prison without a trial. Supposedly, the only reason to hold people is if they are a “flight risk.” No one is supposed to be punished with prison time until and unless he is convicted in a court of law. No one is supposed to be forced to wait forever in abeyance; Americans are supposed to get a speedy trial.
But that is all fiction. It seems like an accused man in New York City (and probably elsewhere) has as many rights as a marine imprisoned in Mexico.
The latest issue of the New Yorker contains a story about Kalief Browder starting back when he was a teen high school student. Let me summarize it for you.
- Browder was accused of stealing a backpack based on the testimony of one witness.
- Browder was put in Rikers Island for three years.
- Browder was released because all charges were dropped because there was no evidence.
The story is so enraging I don’t know what to write about it. Here’s a description of the particular prison on Rikers Island (there are eleven currently occupied) where Browder was confined.
Male adolescents are confined in the Robert N. Davoren Center—known as R.N.D.C. When Browder arrived, the jail held some six hundred boys, aged sixteen to eighteen. Conditions there are notoriously grim. In August of this year, a report by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York described R.N.D.C. as a place with a “deep-seated culture of violence,” where attacks by officers and among inmates are rampant. The report featured a list of inmate injuries: “broken jaws, broken orbital bones, broken noses, long bone fractures, and lacerations requiring stitches.”
That is where Browder had to stay, and the duress was used to try to get him to plead guilty:
For a defendant who is in jail, the more a case drags on the greater the pressure to give up and plead guilty. By early 2012, prosecutors had offered Browder a deal—three and a half years in prison in exchange for a guilty plea. He refused. “I want to go to trial,” he told O’Meara, even though he knew that if he lost he could get up to fifteen years in state prison. Stories circulate on Rikers about inmates who plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit just to put an end to their ordeal, but Browder was determined to get his day in court. He had no idea how rare trials actually are. In 2011, in the Bronx, only a hundred and sixty-five felony cases went to trial; in three thousand nine hundred and ninety-one cases, the defendant pleaded guilty.
Even to this day, having finally escaped Rikers, Browder has been changed by that place and his three years there. His constant worry about security is only one aspect of how he was changed:
Every night before he goes to sleep, he checks that every window in the house is locked. When he rides the subway, he often feels terrified. “I might be attacked; I might be robbed,” he says. “Because, believe me, in jail you know there’s all type of criminal stuff that goes on.” No matter how hard he tries, he cannot forget what he saw: inmates stealing from each other, officers attacking teens, blood on the dayroom floor. “Before I went to jail, I didn’t know about a lot of stuff, and, now that I’m aware, I’m paranoid,” he says. “I feel like I was robbed of my happiness.”
There is a statement near the end of the story that indicates that Browder’s experience in the New York City justice system was rather extreme. But it is difficult to know how that can be true. Browder constantly refused to plead guilty. Perhaps his case is so extreme because other innocent people gave in and pled guilty.
You owe it to yourself to read this story and ask yourself what kind of country you live in.