The Interview: New Yorker’s Jennifer Gonnerman on Rikers

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A Rikers Island juvenile detention facility officer walks down a hallway of the jail, Thursday, July 31, 2014, in New York.

AP Photo/Julie Jacobson

A Rikers Island juvenile detention facility officer walks down a hallway of the jail, Thursday, July 31, 2014, in New York.

Kalief Browder didn’t want to talk about it — any of it.

Not about the wee hours of Saturday, May 15, 2010, when his hellish ordeal began with police officers arresting him and another teen in the Bronx, accusing them of stealing a man’s backpack.

Not about the three years of being imprisoned on Rikers Island — including some 800 days in a solitary confinement cell measuring about 7 feet by 12 feet — without ever having been convicted of anything.

Not about his several suicide attempts at Rikers or the jailers beating inmates or the inmates beating one another or the blood on the dayroom floor.

Jennifer Gonnerman

Jennifer Gonnerman

Journalist Jennifer Gonnerman wanted Kalief Browder to talk about it — all of it.

For she felt compelled to tell his story.

She did so — superbly — in the Oct. 6 issue of The New Yorker in a 7,000-word piece headlined “Before the Law: A boy was accused of taking a backpack. The courts took the next three years of his life.”

“I realized that this story almost encapsulated everything wrong with the New York City criminal justice system in a tale of one teenager,” Gonnerman told JJIE in a telephone interview.

Building the trust and rapport necessary to do the reporting behind the piece took time: Over seven months, Gonnerman figures she did maybe 10 interviews with Browder, sometimes for two- or three-hour stretches.

Still, she said: “The very, very first time I met him he was pretty stiff, guarded, uncomfortable, and I don’t think it was just because he was meeting a stranger. As I got to know him better over time, it seemed to be how he was most of the time as he moved into the world, having gone through this whole experience, having spent so many months in solitary confinement. It had left a real impact, a lingering impact.

“It took some time to be able to conduct the kind of interviews that needed to happen in order to make the piece possible.”

Along with the painstaking interviews with Browder and others and scrutiny of court documents, Gonnerman tapped into first-hand knowledge she gained during a year of reporting for a riveting December 2000 Village Voice piece, “Roaming Rikers.” (Rikers officials denied her repeated requests to visit the jail complex for the New Yorker story on Browder.)

Gonnerman, 43, says on her website, JenniferGonnerman.com, that she’s spent the past 15 years writing about “how the other half lives.”

Her realm as a reporter and writer has encompassed a mentally challenged boy who endured painful electric shocks at a Massachusetts school for disabled people; a heartfelt appreciation of a book about a schizophrenic woman that touched on Gonnerman’s Aunt Holly, who suffered manic depression; a night in the life of a struggling New York City cabbie; the fate of a forklift operator at a Bronx factory after it shuts down; the suicide of a 14-year-old boy; juvenile delinquents held in New York state’s most infamous prison; and the mass incarceration of Americans.

Gonnerman is also the author of “Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett,” a 2004 book about a woman who served 16 years in prison for a first-time drug offense under New York’s draconian Rockefeller drug laws. (The book was a finalist for the National Book Award.)

She views her latest piece as a scathing indictment of two “dysfunctional bureaucracies” in New York: Rikers Island and the Bronx court system.

In August, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York released a blistering, 79-page report condemning a “deep-seated culture of violence” against male teenagers at Rikers that said guards had operated under a “powerful code of silence” and typically went unpunished. The report called solitary confinement of youths at Rikers “excessive and inappropriate.”

Then, in September, The New York Times reported the city Department of Correction planned to eliminate solitary confinement for 16- and 17-year-olds at Rikers by the end of the year.

Kalief Browder entered the justice system in New York just shy of his 17th birthday, which meant he would automatically be tried as an adult. (New York state is one of only two states, along with North Carolina, where all 16- and 17-year-olds are prosecuted in the adult criminal justice system. However, in New York state, 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds are deemed “adolescents” when incarcerated and housed separately from adults.)

Again and again, Browder was shuttled from the jail complex to the Bronx County Hall of Justice. And again and again, he encountered a Kafkaesque court system in which “the people” kept asking for more time to prepare for the case, and weeks at Rikers slipped into months.

Nonetheless, he repeatedly refused to plead guilty when offered deals that would have allowed him to get out of jail and told his court-appointed attorney he wanted to go to trial.

On May 29, 2013, at his 31st court appearance, a judge told Browder prosecutors would dismiss the case because the Mexican immigrant who had claimed his backpack was stolen had returned to Mexico. Just like that, Browder, now 20, was free at last.

Today, he’s studying at Bronx Community College and has received counseling. And New York lawyer Paul Prestia has filed a suit on Browder’s behalf against the city, the New York Police Department, the Bronx District Attorney and the Department of Correction, alleging “malicious prosecution” and other wrongdoing.

Deep emotional scars remained after Browder’s incarceration, as Gonnerman makes clear in her piece: “One day last November, six months after his release, Browder retreated to his bedroom with a steak knife, intending to slit his wrists. A friend happened to stop by, saw the knife, and grabbed it. When he left the house to find Browder’s mother, Browder tried to hang himself from a bannister. An ambulance rushed him to St. Barnabas Hospital [in the Bronx], where he was admitted to the psychiatric ward. In his medical record, a social worker describes the suicide attempt as ‘serious.’ ”

Speaking of his nightmarish three-year ordeal and its aftermath, Browder told Gonnerman, “I feel like I was robbed of my happiness.”

JJIE asked Gonnerman to talk about how she chronicled Browder’s ordeal. Edited excerpts of the interview follow.


JJIE: How did you hear about Kalief Browder and what prompted you to write about him?

Jennifer Gonnerman: Kalief’s civil lawyer filed a suit in 2013, and it got a tiny bit of attention here in New York City, and at first I thought maybe there wasn’t a need to write anything more. But then when I actually read the lawsuit and realized some of the specifics of what [Browder] had endured, I realized there was a much larger story and that’s when I started digging into it, at the beginning of this year.

JJIE: What were your first impressions of Browder, who came across as a smart kid who was deprived of years of formal education while on Rikers?

Gonnerman: He’s a very intelligent young man. He may not have been paying close attention in high school or doing all his homework, but he’s very smart, and I think that came through in the piece.

JJIE: Given what you had reported and written about Rikers, you knew a lot about its reputation before beginning this story, right?

Gonnerman: There were things going on at Rikers that were pretty horrific, and one of them was the conditions in the adolescent jail, which is known as RNDC [Robert N. Davoren Center]. And that is actually not a new story. It’s a pretty old story. A reporter at The Village Voice named Graham Rayman a few years back did many stories about the nightmare conditions out there — the awful brutality, kids against kids, officers against kids. He exposed a lot of that in the wake of a death there in 2008 of a teenager at the hands of some other teenagers. And it opened up a Pandora’s box.

I had already followed this for a long time and I realized that [Browder] had both been in this adolescent jail and also spent so much time in solitary, which Rikers had grown to be incredibly dependent on as a management tool. [While reporting “Roaming Rikers” for The Village Voice], I got an overview of the entire island. It was an education for me about how the place works and doesn’t work. During the reporting of that piece, I actually got to visit what they call the “Bing” — the official name is the Central Punitive Segregation Unit, the main solitary unit. So now fast-forward 15 years, and I’m reading the complaint in Kalief Browder’s civil case, and they’re describing all the time he spent in solitary. I can actually visualize what he went through and kind of fill in the blanks from my own past reporting, my own memories of what the place looked like. It just brought home for me the sort of horrifying nature of what he had endured in a way that maybe not everybody would’ve picked up on if they didn’t have that past reporting history.

JJIE: Do you see yourself as a reform-minded journalist and author who seeks to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” through your work?

Gonnerman: Mostly, I think I see myself as a reporter. But I’m drawn to stories that I feel need to be told and that nobody else is really telling or that I feel that are not getting the attention they deserve. I started covering prisons in 1996 and 1997 for The Village Voice, and that’s where I first started to learn about the criminal justice system.

JJIE: Does it ever get discouraging reporting and writing about those who are down and out — and, at times, seemingly forgotten or subjected to disdain or cruelty of the people in power? How do you keep your own spirits up?

Gonnerman: I think any opportunity to write these stories and to get them published and hopefully get a little attention for them feels like a positive step, and as long as I can continue to do that, I feel positive about the whole thing. Obviously, one story, or multiple stories, are not necessarily going to fix a problem but can begin the process of focusing the public’s attention, the policymakers’, the politicians’ attention on issues that they might otherwise overlook. Sometimes, it’s the only way we can get any of those kinds of changes to happen.

JJIE: What do you hope will come from this New Yorker story?

Gonnerman: You know the two dysfunctional bureaucracies laid out in the piece — both Rikers Island and the Bronx court system — have received attention from other reporters in the past, and I’m sure they will in the future. But I think this story hopefully will just add to that body of work in both educating the folks in power and prompting them to pay closer attention and really try to make some changes.

In a lot of the coverage of the criminal justice system in general, it’s so difficult to get access to jails and prison systems that often the voices of the folks most directly impacted are left out of the public debate, out of the national conversation. And I was trying in this piece to let us see this world from the point of view of somebody who was going through it himself as a teenager, giving his first-hand account, and I think that can be very powerful to read. And in a lot of ways, these folks are the true experts on everything that is wrong with our criminal justice system, and I feel like anything that we can do as reporters to incorporate their voices, their insights into this larger conversation is going to benefit all of us.

JJIE: You note Browder’s bail was initially set at $3,000, which his family couldn’t afford, but then bail was denied because Browder was on probation on “youthful offender” status after a police officer reported seeing him take a delivery truck for a joyride and crash it into a parked car months earlier. If the family had had the money to hire a private attorney, would Browder have been released sooner?

Gonnerman: Probably, but it’s impossible to say. Who knows what would have happened? But certainly they didn’t have many means, and in that way, their story is no different from just about everybody cycled through the Bronx [court system].

JJIE: Did it shock you that Brendan O’Meara, Browder’s court-appointed attorney (known in New York as “18-B” lawyers), never visited his client on Rikers?

Gonnerman: I think it would be shocking to a national audience to hear that. But in New York, it would almost be surprising if an 18-B lawyer did visit their client on Rikers. I think it’s not unusual for an 18-B lawyer to never visit their client on Rikers because it is incredibly arduous to get out there and get back, and it eats up a tremendous amount of time. And these lawyers are incredibly overtaxed. They have to pick up so many cases in order to make a living. What they do, as it gets into in the piece, is they have introduced video-conferencing at the courthouse in the Bronx so that makes life easier for those lawyers who take up that opportunity.

JJIE: What surprised you most about Browder and his story?

Gonnerman: I think the fact that he was so steadfast in his refusal to plead guilty. Over weeks and months, including in that final moment in the spring of 2013 when Judge Patricia DiMango essentially tells him he could walk out today if he wanted to plead guilty. Yet despite enduring some of the worst that Rikers dishes out, he still would not give up, would not give in. I think that is pretty extraordinary, and he was quite young too. And all he had was his own belief and his own faith that it was going to work out that and that pleading guilty wasn’t the right thing to do, that one should never plead guilty just to go home, that you always should stick to your guns if you feel you’ve really done nothing wrong. So I guess his fortitude in that situation despite everything sort of being against him and nobody paying attention to him or his case is the kind of thing that really grabs your attention.

JJIE: Where did that inner strength come from?

Gonnerman: His mother visited him every week and brought him clean clothes and talked to him on the phone, and he told me if not for his mother, he probably would have just gone insane. I think that’s something that a lot of inmates don’t have, including a lot of young inmates, and I think that helped give him the strength to hang in there in a way when maybe others would have given up. Even the matter of the laundry. So other inmates had to scrub their clothes by hand, so that means walking around in dirty clothes all the time. And the fact that Kalief could have his mother doing his laundry, which maybe seems like it’s really a minor thing, is such a major quality-of-life issue. It just helped to keep him a little bit sane in a very insane environment. Small details like that, I think, really helped.

JJIE: What about Browder’s suicide attempts while incarcerated?

Gonnerman: There were several suicide attempts. Obviously, he reaches moments of despair and just feels like he can’t take it anymore. His brother said something interesting: When Kalief would talk about his civil case, he would sound very strong and very determined not to give up, give in. But then he had almost a different personality when he was talking about jail conditions.

JJIE: How did you get Browder to open up to you so much?

Gonnerman: I ended up spending quite a bit of time with him, and I think he felt increasingly comfortable talking about some of his more difficult days on Rikers. While it was understandably difficult for him to talk about his more traumatic memories, I think he spoke to me about them because he wanted his story to be told — and he wanted the public to know all that he had endured.


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