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How Kalief Browder became the face of Rikers Island abuse

New York City has announced sweeping reforms at Rikers Island, following a class action lawsuit over the abuse of inmates. Earlier this month, Kalief Browder, a former Rikers prisoner, committed suicide. He was held for more than 1,000 days without a trial before being released and endured a brutal detention. The New Yorker’s Jennifer Gonnerman, who brought his story to light, joins Gwen Ifill.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Now to Broken Justice, our series on the changing attitudes about the criminal justice system and how we detain and punish people in America.

    The city of New York has announced it will enact sweeping reforms at Rikers Island, the country's second largest jail. This follows a class action lawsuit over inmate abuses. The changes include a new federal monitor to oversee the jail, new guidelines for the treatment of teenaged inmates, revised policies on when guards can use force against inmates, and the installation of 7,800 new surveillance cameras.

    The face of many of these reforms has become Kalief Browder, a former Rikers inmate who, at the age of 16, was accused in 2010 of stealing a backpack, held at Rikers for more than 1,000 days without a trial before he was released. He never recovered from what turned into a brutal detention, and he committed suicide earlier this month.

    Jennifer Gonnerman is a staff writer for "The New Yorker" magazine. She profiled Browder during his three years in jail and has been reporting on Rikers for more than a decade.

    Jennifer Gonnerman, explain how Kalief Browder, in particular, after years of complaints brought against this jail for its detention policies, how did he become the face of this story?

    JENNIFER GONNERMAN, "The New Yorker": You know, I met Kalief early last year, and ended up spending a lot of time with him, and ended up writing a profile about him for "The New Yorker" which ran last October.

    And one of things that drew me to Kalief's story was the fact that almost everything that could go wrong in the criminal justice system had happened to him. You mentioned some of the things, but he was in jail, in Rikers Island, for three years waiting for a trial that never happened.

    Ultimately, the charges against him were dropped. He endured abuse by inmates, by guards. He spent about two years in solitary confinement. I mean, his story is extraordinary in the details of how horrific it was. And, as you mentioned in the introduction earlier this month, he committed suicide at home here in the Bronx in New York City.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    You were able to get hold of some surveillance footage from inside the prison which shows Kalief Browder as the target of some of these attacks.

    We want to play a little bit about that. But I want you to talk about the culture of violence we're talking about here. In this particular video, we see him walking with a guard who, for no apparent reason, begins to assault him.

  • JENNIFER GONNERMAN:

    Right.

    You know, abuse at Rikers Island has been a problem for a very long time, but it's gotten much, much worse in the past decade. I mean, that's what you're seeing at play in the video, where you have an officer supposedly just escorting Kalief to the shower, but instead throws him to the ground, and for that transgression was never actually punished, despite the fact that we had this video up on "The New Yorker"'s Web site in April at that time.

    When other reporters were calling the Department of Correction to ask what was happening to this officer, they were merely saying that he was being — quote — "retrained."

  • GWEN IFILL:

    How does the settlement reached today between the city of New York and the U.S. attorney, how does it begin to address these problems, especially for teenagers and for the mentally ill?

  • JENNIFER GONNERMAN:

    You know, one of the things about this agreement which is really quite historic is how incredibly sweeping it is.

    The Department of Justice combined — joined up with the lawsuit brought by the Legal Aid Society here in New York and a couple of private law firms. And while Legal Aid has been suing the city over conditions in its jails for two or three decades, this is the first time that they have come to an agreement that affects every jail in the system, every inmate in the system, that's sweeping in scope and so detailed.

    And so, for that reason, it's quite historic and giving hope to some people that maybe real reforms and lasting reforms might actually happen this time around.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But, in reality, how does one track the use of force? Obviously, a lot of cameras, a lot of videos like the one we saw, perhaps more, but then doesn't someone have to follow up?

  • JENNIFER GONNERMAN:

    Exactly.

    I mean, that's one of the most disturbing things, is this video where it shows the officer throwing Kalief to the ground. You know, that video is obviously shot by a city camera, surveillance camera inside. And I was actually inside the solitary confinement unit on Rikers Island.

    And yet nothing happened, even though, of course — as you say, even though the video exists, somebody actually has to watch it. Somebody actually has to take action and make sure that justice is brought in each and every one of these cases. And that's often where things fall down.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Isn't that what the point of having a federal monitor to oversee Rikers is about?

  • JENNIFER GONNERMAN:

    Yes, exactly.

    I mean, it's long overdue that we have more outside eyes, you know, the federal government getting involved and really paying very close attention to what's going on in Rikers Island. Part of the reason why things got as bad as they did is that people just weren't paying attention, whether policy-makers, government officials, even the media going back several years. Just, Rikers wasn't on people's radar. And things were permitted to get very, very bad.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District in New York, who was the one who worked out the settlement with the city, he likened the conditions inside Rikers to kind of a "Lord of the Flies" environment.

    Was his involvement what turned — turned this into what it is now?

  • JENNIFER GONNERMAN:

    I think that's definitely true.

    Last August, Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney, released a report about the conditions in the adolescent jail on Rikers Island which — it was a 79-page report, and it was absolutely blistering. I had never actually read a government report that was as damning as this one, and went into great detail about the abuses that 16- 17-year-olds, 18-year-olds were enduring on Rikers Island.

    And that's — was sort of the first step in this process. And at that time, it didn't sound like the U.S. attorney was going to bring a lawsuit against New York City. But things got worse and worse. And that's what they ultimately did, joining this other class action lawsuit that Legal Aid had. And that's where we are today, months later, with this new legal agreement.

    And that's exactly why — I think his involvement is why this has got the best chance of reform yet.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, your reporting certainly made a difference as well.

    Jennifer Gonnerman of "The New Yorker," thank you.

  • JENNIFER GONNERMAN:

    Thank you so much.

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