is a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine.
Explosive video obtained by The New Yorker depicts extreme violence inside New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex. Surveillance camera footage shows former teenage prisoner, Kalief Browder, being abused on two separate occasions. In one clip from 2012, the teenager is seen inside Rikers’ Central Punitive Segregation Unit, better known as the Bing. As a guard escorts Browder to the showers, Browder appears to speak, and then the guard suddenly violently hurls him to the floor although he’s already handcuffed. In a separate video clip from 2010, Browder is attacked by almost a dozen other teenage inmates after he punches a gang member who spat in his face. The other inmates pile onto Browder and pummel him until guards finally intervene. In an exclusive interview, we are the first to speak about the video with New Yorker staff writer Jennifer Gonnerman, who told Browder’s story in The New Yorker last year, describing how he spent nearly three years at Rikers after arriving there as a 16-year-old high school sophomore following his refusal to plead guilty to a crime he did not commit — stealing a backpack. "Footage [from inside Rikers] like this never, ever comes out," Gonnerman says. "This is what goes on when nobody is looking."
AMY GOODMAN: We’re on the road in Denver, Colorado, but we turn right now to an exclusive interview with New Yorker staff writer Jennifer Gonnerman about explosive video depicting violence inside New York City’s Rikers Island jail. Rare surveillance camera footage obtained by The New Yorker magazine shows a former teenage prisoner, Kalief Browder, being abused on two separate occasions. In one clip from 2012, the teen is seen inside Rikers’ Central Punitive Segregation Unit, better known as the Bing. As a guard escorts Browder to the showers, Browder appears to speak, then the guard suddenly violently hurls him to the floor, although he’s already handcuffed. In a separate video clip from 2010, Kalief Browder is attacked by almost a dozen other teenage prisoners after he punches a gang member who spat in his face. The other prisoners pile onto Browder and pummel him until guards finally intervene.
Reporter Jennifer Gonnerman wrote about Browder for The New Yorker last year and told his story on Democracy Now! in one of our most watched interviews. She described how Browder spent nearly three years at Rikers, arriving there as a 16-year-old high school sophomore, after he refused to plead guilty to a crime he did not commit, he said. The crime? Stealing a backpack. It was May 15, 2010, when Browder was walking home from a party with his friends in the Bronx, and he was stopped by police based on a tip he had robbed someone weeks earlier. He told HuffPost Live what happened next.
KALIEF BROWDER: They had searched me, and the guy actually said—at first he said I robbed him. I didn’t have anything on me. And that’s when—
MARC LAMONT HILL: When you say "nothing," you mean no weapon and none of his property.
KALIEF BROWDER: No weapon, no money, anything he said that I allegedly robbed him for. So the guy actually changed up his story and said that I actually tried to rob him. But then another police officer came, and they said that I robbed him two weeks prior. And then they said, "We’re going to take you to the precinct, and most likely we’re going to let you go home." But then, I never went home.
AMY GOODMAN: Kalief Browder would be imprisoned for the next almost three years, even though he was never convicted of any crime. For nearly 800 days of that time, he was held in solitary confinement. The teenager maintained his innocence, requested a trial, but was only offered a plea deals while the trial was repeatedly delayed. Near the end of his time in jail, the judge offered to sentence him to time served if he entered a guilty plea, and told him he could face 15 years in prison if he was convicted. He refused to accept the deal, maintaining his innocence. He was only released when the case was suddenly dismissed.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has cited Browder’s ordeal as a reason to, quote, "root out unnecessary case delay." In a statement to The New Yorker magazine, the mayor wrote, quote, "Kalief Browder’s tragic story put a human face on Rikers Island’s culture of delay—a culture with profound human and fiscal costs for defendants and our city," he wrote. Mayor de Blasio has recently launched a sweeping new plan to improve conditions at Rikers.
Well, for more, we’re joined by Jennifer Gonnerman, staff writer for The New Yorker.
Jennifer, welcome back to Democracy Now! I’d like to start by first you telling us—setting the scene for us of this explosive video, how rare it is to have video inside Rikers.
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: It’s unbelievably rare, as you know, Amy. I mean, footage like this never, ever comes out. It’s not as if this was shot by some kind of camera crew. This is what goes on when nobody is looking. You know, nobody really knows what goes on in Rikers Island. Nobody really sees it, except for the people who live there and the people who work there. So, having footage like this is invaluable, and it just never, ever gets out like this. It’s highly unusual.
AMY GOODMAN: So, would you narrate—because the video is silent, would you narrate the first video of the guard coming to solitary confinement where this teenager is, Kalief Browder?
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: You see him outside of his prison cell, the guard, flexing his muscles. Can you start there and narrate as we show it?
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: You know, so the correction officer has come to Kalief Browder’s cell to take him to the shower, which is supposed to be a daily occurrence. And on the way there, he appears to toss him or slam him to the ground—and that’s what’s happening right here in the video—and hold him down. And it’s unclear why exactly that’s happening. There’s no microphones on these cameras. It looks like maybe Kalief said something. It’s uncertain. I asked Kalief, "What happened here? What was going on?" And he told me that a week or two prior they had had some sort of verbal dispute, an argument, and he felt like this was probably just the way the officer was dealing with it. But it came out of nowhere to Kalief.
And, you know, I met Kalief about a year ago, and he told me about this incident at that time. He told me the exact date that it occurred. And he said, "You need to see the video." And I didn’t think, you know, of course, I was ever going to see the video. But the fact that he was so adamant—and it wasn’t as if he wanted me to see it because it was the worst thing that happened to him on Rikers Island, because it certainly wasn’t. It’s just that he knew it had happened in full view of the cameras. And there was something about that that was so blatant and so egregious that he just was sort of very eager for people to know what had happened and for people to see it. And it just struck me. Here he was in solitary confinement, and yet he remembered, two years later, the exact date that this incident had occurred.
And actually, Amy, the most disturbing thing about this video, you can’t even see in the video, but you alluded to it in the introduction, which is the fact that when this happens, Kalief has now been in jail for 862 days without being convicted of a crime. So he’s been trapped on Rikers Island for that long by the time this happens, and he’s been about nine months in solitary confinement at this point, barely ever leaving his cell. This is one of the few times he ever leaves the cell, only to go to the court or to recreation or to a shower.
AMY GOODMAN: And how old was he at the time?
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: In this video, he’s 19 years old. He was arrested at 16. And it’s just—this video is—
AMY GOODMAN: Why was he never tried—
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: You know, that’s something—
AMY GOODMAN: —over that three-year period?
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Right. You know, that’s something that I wrote about at length in The New Yorker last fall, and it has to do with a congestion in the courts, particularly in the Bronx. He was arrested in the Bronx. If you’re arrested there, the courts are slower than in the other boroughs. But the case went on and on. And the real reason it dragged on for three years, which is pretty unusual, but certainly not the only time this happens in New York City, is because he insisted on a trial. Just like you talked about in the introduction, he said he [was innocent]. He was not going to plead guilty to something that he believed he had not done. He wanted his trial. And he didn’t think it was going to take three years to get a trial; he just wanted his day in court. And it never came. They kept doing all these delays, over and over again.
You know, my feeling is that the court system, which decides how long he’s going to be locked up before trial, has really no idea what’s happening in Rikers Island. So there’s these two systems that are highly dysfunctional—the jail system and the court system. And here’s Kalief bouncing between the two, each dysfunction exacerbating the—each system just exacerbating the dysfunction of the other system. You know, it’s completely crazy.
AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer, you just described the video that we saw. And by the way, how did you get this video?
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: You know, I can’t really get into how I got it, except just to say that it is city footage. The city has this footage. They shot it with surveillance cameras in their own facilities.
AMY GOODMAN: Have these three—was it three guards, the first one and then the other two that joined in? Have they been disciplined?
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: I don’t know. The city has had this footage for more than a day now, but I don’t know if there’s been any discipline. I know they said they’re looking into it, into the incidents.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, presumably, they’ve always had it, right? It’s a prison video.
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Well, they have, of course, of course. But, you know, having it and watching it and scrutinizing it isn’t, you know, always the same.
AMY GOODMAN: Right. Let’s go to the second video, the video that was two years earlier in 2010. Describe it for us as we play it. Again, it is silent.
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: You know, in this video—here we go. You started the video where Kalief—you can’t see Kalief in the screen here, because he’s being sort of pummeled, kicked and beaten by, I don’t know, eight or 10 different inmates. But this is a—he’s in a housing unit in the adolescent jail on Rikers Island. He’s been locked up for six months. He’s 17 years old in this video. The housing unit is run by a gang. He, in an earlier incident, tells me that he was spit in the face. A gang leader spit in his face. He was so angry about this that he later punched the gang leader, knowing full well what would happen, and this is exactly what happened. The entire housing unit starts to jump on him.
So, right now in the video, the officers have pulled most of the teenagers off of Kalief, though a lot of the teenagers are trying to break free of the guards and get some extra punches in, as you’re seeing right there. The officers are pulling them back, pulling them back, trying to protect Kalief as best they can, though they’re completely outmatched. And there, you see, they’ve put him in a sort of safe room, and yet the other inmates have burst in and now are pummeling and punching him and beating him up once again. So it’s sort of like one against 10, or one against eight, and the officers are clearly trying to do the best they can, I think, but there’s not much they can do when they’re so outmatched.
In this part of the video, I think you can see an officer has a canister of pepper spray, and he’s trying to get the other inmates off of Kalief. But it’s essentially a very protracted beatdown of one inmate. And here’s Kalief alone, you know, looking as one would have after [inaudible]—
AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer, it’s—
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: —seriously attacked.
AMY GOODMAN: It is astounding that Kalief Browder, as a 16-year-old, went through this for three years. This is Kalief speaking on HuffPost Live’s Marc Lamont Hill that while he was in—he was telling him, while he was in solitary confinement at Rikers, the guards often refused to give him his meals.
KALIEF BROWDER: If you say anything that could tick them off any type of way, some of them, which is a lot of them, what they do is they starve you. They won’t feed you. And it’s already hard in there, because if you get the three trays that you get every day, you’re still hungry, because I guess that’s part of the punishment. So, if they starve you one tray, that could really make an impact on you. And—
MARC LAMONT HILL: How much were you starved?
KALIEF BROWDER: I was starved a lot. I can’t even—I can’t even count.
AMY GOODMAN: Kalief Browder went on to say he was once starved four times in a row—no breakfast, lunch, dinner or breakfast again. As we begin to wrap up, Jennifer, can you talk about how he is doing today?
JENNIFER GONNERMAN: You know, he’s out. He’s been out for two years now. And I guess he’s doing as well as one could possibly do, considering what he’s been through. But, you know, the psychological damage, the emotional damage—I wrote about it last year, last fall, in The New Yorker—continues to this day, continues after the story comes out, of course, and it goes on and on. And, you know, it’s unclear at this point what it’s going to mean down the road. But, you know, he’s doing OK. He’s in college. He’s trying to gain back the education that he missed, because he missed two years of high school while he was locked up on Rikers Island.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for being with us, staff writer for The New Yorker. We will link to all of your stories at The New Yorker magazine.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, today is the hundredth anniversary of the Armenian genocide.