A Teenager's Three Years at Rikers - With No Trial

The October 6 issue of the New Yorker features an astonishing article by Jennifer Gonnerman about a Bronx teenager who was held, without trial, for three years at Riker's after being accused of robbery on the flimsiest of pretenses.

The story combines several themes that have been discussed here at Commonweal: the climate of abuse and violence that reigns in the youth prisons on Rikers Island; the over-reliance on, and degrading effects of, solitary confinement; the structural injustices that make life even harder for the poor and underprivileged. In his article on solitary confinement ("Cruel but Not Unusual"), Derek Jeffreys made reference to the story of Kalief Browder, the subject of Gonnerman's story -- he was the teenager who "spent a total of four hundred days in solitary confinement," only to be "released from jail after three years when the flimsy case against him fell apart."

Browder's story, in Gonnerman's telling, illustrates many of the points Jeffreys made about how time spent in solitary can degrade a prisoner's humanity and reduce them to despair. Browder's ordeal drove him to multiple suicide attempts, despite the remarkable strength of character that allowed him to refuse to plead guilty -- he would not take a deal that might end his otherwise open-ended imprisonment if it meant confessing to a crime he did not commit.

As Gonnerman reports, the overburdened, slow-moving Bronx court system depends on such deals to dispense with the vast majority of its cases, and tricks and technicalities make the legal right to a speedy trial a farce in cases like Browder's.

Three years in jail waiting for a case to be dismissed -- a case that, as Gonnerman tells it, never had much going for it in the first place -- is bad enough. Three years of abusive treatment is worse; that the person suffering it is a teenager, on the cusp of adulthood, is worse still. Worst of all is knowing that the negative effects of those injustices will be with Browder for a lifetime. How does a young man begin to rebuild his life after being thrown so roughly off course? And what can the rest of us do about it, now that we know?

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

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