Sixteen-year-old Kalief Browder spent three years inside New York City's Rikers Island without being convicted of a crime, enduring two of those years in solitary confinement. He subsequently struggled with his mental health and eventually took his own life. A new exhibition at the artist space “Pioneer Works” in Brooklyn called “Kalief Browder: The Box” seeks to shed light on Browder’s strength in the face of his long periods in solitary confinement. Ivette Feliciano reports.
In June, New York City's board of corrections announced it will end the practice of solitary confinement beginning this fall. The announcement was made just days after the 6th anniversary of Kalief Browder's death. The New York City Teen spent three years inside Rikers, two of those in solitary confinement, without being convicted of a crime. Browder subsequently struggled with his mental health and eventually took his own life.
A new exhibition in Brooklyn, New York seeks to shed light on Browder's story. NewsHour Weekend's Ivette Feliciano spoke with artist Coby Kennedy about his exhibit.
In his piece "Kalief Browder: The Box" at Brooklyn New York's Pioneer Works, artist Coby Kennedy created an eight by ten by six feet sculpture that replicates the exact dimensions of a solitary confinement cell on New York City's Rikers Island. The glass surfaces are etched with line renderings of the bed, barred window, and toilet along with text.
Sandblasted on the side of the piece here is 'Kalief Browder was kidnaped off the street by police, taken away from his mother, family, friends held for over one thousand days on Rikers Island for a crime he did not commit, and was physically and mentally tortured by being locked in a solitary box for over 700 of those days. Twenty three hours a day.'
When Kennedy first learned about Browder's story through news reports, he says he felt incapacitated for days.
It hit me so hard because I feel a real personal connection to it, because what he made it through and what he endured has been one of my worst nightmares ever since I was a child. To be held in that way, you know, you're kidnapped .
In addition to his time in solitary, Browder was physically and mentally abused by prison guards and other incarcerated people.
You talk about this chronic fear of having a situation like that from the time you were, you know, a child. Where does that stem from?
For me, I've experienced, whether was growing up in D.C. as a kid or living my life in New York, honestly, every country I've been to, you know, I've experienced these moments where I've come very, very close to having that freedom taken away, a lot of times just for being who I am.
I knew going into this that the piece itself being a recreation of a solitary confinement cell, could be triggering for people. But then on the flip side, there are vast, vast amounts of communities and people that need to see this and need to experience this.
To that end, the installation is presented in conjunction with a four-part town hall series led by the civic engagement organization For Freedoms. It introduces participants to the damaging impacts of mass incarceration. Discussions center the voices of legal scholars, activists and formerly incarcerated people at the forefront of the movement to end solitary confinement.
I'm standing in front of you as somebody telling you, I suffered the inhumanity the indignity the trauma and the torture of solitary confinement. Nobody should be treated like that, not any single human being.
Sam Giarratani of Negative Space, a social justice consulting company, facilitated the collaboration between Kennedy, Pioneer Works and For Freedoms.
Because it's a show around mass incarceration, there's sort of like a small sect of people that will continue to come and see shows like this. But because this is happening at Pioneer Works, I'm hoping that we just reach a little bit more of a broader audience. Even if it's not completely changing a mindset, it's at least educating people on, you know, the halt solitary movement and what they're doing to change policies.
What is it that you feel like the other side or people from this subjective reality that's so different from yours, what are they missing about Kelief's story?
They don't realize that they would offer him plea bargains all the time while he was locked up, and he wouldn't he wouldn't take them. He was out for two years after after he was released, fighting for his case against the city. Not just that, but fighting against the realities of the institutions that were still coming down on him, still trying to paint him as a criminal.
Browder's trauma caused lasting depression that resulted in his suicide in 2015, about two years after his release. But it's Browder's strength in solitary confinement and his perseverance that Kennedy wants the public to remember him for.
It's the story of a boy finding so much fortitude and so much strength within himself that no matter what came at him, he always fought back against it in defense of his own humanity and his own truth.
The most important part of this piece is the quote, that's sandblasted here, 'The way I looked at it, if I got to stay here just to prove that I'm innocent, so be it.' It's by Kalif himself.
Browder's family settled a civil lawsuit with the City of New York in 2019, yet no one was held accountable for having incarcerated the 16-year-old for three years with neither trial nor proof. Kennedy hopes the sculpture will illuminate the "Halt Solitary" movement, and Browder's overwhelming endurance inside the box.
A lot of people miss that in the whole story. Is Kalief's strength, you know, his fortitude just nonstop, even all the way up to the last part of his life.
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Ivette Feliciano shoots, produces and reports on camera for PBS NewsHour Weekend. Before starting with NewsHour in 2013, she worked as a one-person-band correspondent for the News 12 Networks, where she won a New York Press Club Award for her coverage of Super Storm Sandy, which ravaged the East Coast in 2012. Prior to that, Ivette was the Associate Producer of Latin American news for Worldfocus, a nationally televised, daily international news show seen on Public Television. While at Worldfocus, Ivette served as the show’s Field Producer and Reporter for Latin America, covering special reports on the Mexican drug war as well as a 5-part series out of Bolivia, which included an interview with President Evo Morales. In 2010, she co-produced a documentary series on New York’s baseball history that aired on Channel Thirteen. Ivette holds a Master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she specialized in broadcast journalism.
Laura Fong shoots and produces stories for PBS NewsHour Weekend on a wide range of topics, including U.S. politics, education, the arts and urban transit. She also covers breaking news for the Saturday and Sunday broadcasts. Before joining NewsHour Weekend, Laura worked on the first three seasons of the CNN documentary series "Inside Man" with Morgan Spurlock. Through Teach for America, Laura taught first grade for two years in Houston. She has a B.A. in electronic media from the University of Oregon.
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