The movie tells the story of injustice done to sixteen-year-old Kalief Browder, a New York teen arrested and jailed for years on Rikers Island. Browder awaited trial for three years after he was accused of stealing a backpack. Of those three years, he spent almost two in solitary confinement, seeing and speaking to no one for twenty-three hours a day, and suffering abuse from correction officers and other prisoners. Two years after he was released, he took his own life.
The story has become one of the most important touchstones in New York City. New York continues to be the only state other than North Carolina that prosecutes all youth as adults when they turn sixteen years of age. Furst’s documentary is appearing on SpikeTV as a six-part series, and features producer Harvey Weinstein (Gangs of New York, Pulp Fiction) and executive producer Jay Z.
Q: How are things?
Jenner Furst: Well, I’m gearing up for the premiere tonight on Spike at 10 o’clock. I’m actually talking to you from the editing room; been working around the clock to bring the series home.
It’s been very exciting to see the attention—America needs to see this and there’s no better time than now, especially with everything happening in the country. It’s about us coming together and understanding how terribly broken our criminal justice system is.
Q: And you’ve already directed movies with big views on other cities, like Brick City and Chicagoland.
Furst: Yes, but never have I had the opportunity to tell a story so concise and succinct about the failures of multiple systems that all impacted one young man—and also about his courage and bravery to go against the grain and stand up for what was right.
As Jay Z said, he essentially became a prophet. It’s prophecy now. It’s a very, very sad story that’s hard to look at, but if America can just keep their eyes on this and not look away, we have an amazing opportunity to look at what’s wrong with our system.
Q: For me, this is probably one of the most important stories in New York City history. Together with the producers, Harvey Weinstein and Jay Z, you’re saying “Hey, this is a human rights issue!”
Furst: Yeah, there was something so special about Kalief’s character. How he carried himself, how he spoke, and his energy. In this kind of duality, he could be just a normal kid but he also carried with him not just the pain of the abuse that he suffered, but also the responsibility that he had to speak out. He had the bravery to go to the media and say “This was done to me, these are the people who did it, it was wrong, and I want an apology. I need to speak up for the millions of Americans who are not getting this opportunity right now.”
He knew he had that responsibility, but a part of him just wanted to disappear and be a normal kid. The saddest part of all of this is that he never had that opportunity.
Q: Did any of his teachers reach out to him?
Furst: Ms. Sharlene was one of the teachers, prior to him being arrested. He wasn’t the best student in the world, and she knew that, but he was smart and there was something different about him. She described running into him after [his imprisonment] and it was very hard for her to see him because he was not the same.
When I was admitted to Rikers Island—after a year of trying to gain access—I was taken to East River Academy, the high school on Rikers Island. Many people don’t know this, but ERA has the lowest attrition rate in any public school in the city. When people decide to teach there, they stay there for many years. And these teachers are some of the best there are trying to provide an education for kids that have everything stacked against them.
But there’s nothing that really comes close to the haunting feeling of walking down that hallway, and seeing the young bodies—some them don’t look like they’ve even gone through puberty—rushing towards the window. They’d say, “Who’s this person? Who’s that?” They were like caged animals.
I had a tragic feeling in my gut and I felt as if I was in a concentration camp.
It is one of the great human tragedies of our country right now, a human rights tragedy. These are children. Their brains haven’t even developed yet and in many ways, they’ll never be the same after experiencing something like this. We are all allowing this to happen.
It’s so easily preventable. We can change the law so they have the protections of being a juvenile here in New York. There’s a bill on the floor right now [to raise the age of who is a juvenile in the court system], but they always gets sabotaged by Republicans in Albany—
Furst: Prisons and jails are employment centers, and they represent jobs. As manufacturing has left many towns in America and there is no longer a middle-class core of employment for people, prisons have become that middle-class job. The simple fact of raising the age would stop millions of inmates from going to those facilities. In the first year, it would stop 28,000 [sixteen- and seventeen-year olds from getting prosecuted as adults, mostly for misdemeanors]. Those are a lot of lives. That’s 28,000 souls. That’s 28,000 young people …
This is a no-brainer, but the Republicans in Albany have gotten in the way every time. Many of the folks who have worked on reform feel like this is the time: You have this TV show. You have people talking about it. You have Jay Z talking about it. We can actually do this.
Q: There’s a lot of talk about the school-to-prison pipeline, meaning all the ways that injustice happens in our schools and criminalizes young people. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Furst: When you’re inside the classroom and you’re with the teacher, it’s a safe haven. But you could be kidnapped in the hallway. You could be kidnapped outside the school. I use the term “kidnap” very seriously because essentially there are parents that find out, the way
Venida Browder did, that their son’s been arrested hours afterwards, and there’s nothing parents can do if they can’t come up with the [bail] money. It’s like a ransom and the person’s been kidnapped.
There are kids being policed in a way that is so militant and so unforgiving and so racially biased. There are not many well-off white communities where the police just throw kids on cars and take them to the station, and throw charges at them. But in communities of color and low-income communities the police take on this role. It’s a kidnapping. In an affluent community, there would be an uproar. Yet, it’s silently happening to millions of kids all over America just because they’re black or brown or poor. It’s predatory and it’s very scary.
Q: The language you’re using there is scary. At any given point, boys and girls are policed heavily.
Furst: And the teachers don’t know what to do. Teachers want a safe environment. I don’t think teachers understand the implications of partnering with law enforcement to keep order in their school; those kids could fall into the same trap Kalief did, and their whole lives will be destroyed.
Q: What do you hope people get out of this six-part series?
Furst: The system is kept hidden from many Americans. They don’t know know how it works. And once you begin to understand how it works, you will be horrified. Once you begin to see what can happen to a family, it will grab you by the soul. And once you begin to see that Kalief could be your brother, your son, your friend, that’s the moment of change. You would never tolerate that happening to someone you knew. If we all had that same feeling at the same time, we can, as a populist movement, change the criminal justice system. It doesn’t just have to happen at the top level. Kalief was fortunate to have the advocacy of the President of the United States. Barack Obama wrote about Kalief Browder and invoked his name in reform for solitary confinement of juveniles in federal prison. That happened on a presidential level.
But the reality is that the reform happens locally and that people need to take everything more seriously. They need to take the district attorney more seriously. They need to take the local judges they’re electing more seriously, and they need to understand what’s happening right in their county court and county jail. What are the practices in your county jail? What are the practices in your county court? What is happening at the state level that you can sign petitions to change. That’s where the rubber meets the road, and that’s what I want people to take from this experience.
Author: José Luis Vilson