Kalief: You miss everything, everything about being home -- the fresh air, your family, certain events. you wanna be home….
Kalief Browder. It's one the names in the roll call, of black lives taken by the criminal justice system.
He was arrested in New York City at age 16, because someone accused him of stealing a backpack... A backpack. One witness. And he spent three years at Rikers Island waiting for a trial, because he couldn't pay his bail and refused to take a plea. Both inmates and guards abused Kalief at Rikers. He spent nearly two years in solitary.
Kalief: And in solitary confinement they control your food and when it's time for so if you say anything that can tick them off in any kind of way, a lot of them. T they won't feed you. it's already hard in there because the three trays they give, you are still hungry so if they starve you one tray, that could really make an impact
Dwayne: We don't now lack for evidence that this is horrific.
Dwayne Betts is the poet and lawyer who's been with me throughout this podcast. He says solitary confinement is so dangerous for young people like Kalief that the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatrists recommends any kid held for more than 24 hours should get immediate evaluation.
Dwayne: It is so bad that the U.N. expert on torture has called for absolute prohibition of solitary confinement. I mean the practice is just basically considered around the world as inhumane, cruel and degrading
Kalief Browder tried to kill himself several times while in solitary. Guards responded by beating him.
He did finally get out of Rikers -- the prosecutor dropped the case because they lost touch with the single witness. But Kalief never left solitary behind.
Kalief Browder killed himself on Saturday. Browder spent 3 years in jail on NYC’s Rikers Island .. much of it in solitary confinement. All that time, he was awaiting trial, atrial that never took place.
I'm Kai Wright, this is Caught. The kid who really got us started reporting this series has landed in Rikers too. Z is the 17 year old who we last heard from after he’d been re-arrested. We’re gonna return to his story later in this episode. But first…we are going to focus on this one extreme form of punishing kids.
In recent years, reform advocates have made a lot of progress in curtailing the use of solitary. President Obama banned solitary for juveniles in federal prisons. New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio banned its use for anyone under 21 years old at Rikers. And following a lawsuit, NY State banned extreme forms of solitary for juveniles in prisons.
But as with anything, there's often a gap between the rules at the top and the reality inside the system. So we wanted to find out what kids like Kalief Browder face around New York State now, when they are held while waiting for trial. We partnered with the Marshall Project to investigate it, and WNYC producer Courtney Stein was a part of the team…
So, Courtney, how's it look? Is the ban put in place back in 2014 working?
Courtney: You know, that ban only keeps teenagers in New York State prisons out of 23-hour solitary confinement. There’s a loophole for kids in county jails. If a kid like Kalief Browder is being held in a county jail besides Rikers, they can be put in solitary. And being in jail means, for the most part, they haven’t yet had a triall they haven’t pled guilty or been convicted of a crime...and it means they’re probably being locked up with adults.
[jail doors opening, walking]
Courtney: So I took a trip upstate to check out one of these jails, in Onondaga County. This place has been rated among the worst jails in New York. I came here to meet a young woman we’re going to call Imani. I was led back through a series of locking gates to a small classroom.
A few minutes later a corrections officer brought her in.
Imani: nice to meet you too
They had her in an adult-sized jumpsuit but she looks like she could be in middle school.
C: So this is the recorder, this is the microphone, I’m going to get kind of close so I can get good sound. Like this...
Staff: Okay, we’ll let you guys do your thing
The two corrections officers left the room
C: i’m very surprised that we’re sitting alone with you
Imani: For real
A wall of windows faced the hallway, so they were there watching us as we talked.
Courtney: Can you tell me what it’s like growing up here?
Imani: For real? Is this your first time?
Imani: I don’t know, where I grew up at it just was not good.
Imani is the baby in her family; the youngest of three kids. She talks to her Grandma on the phone everyday and until she got locked up...she helped take care of her nieces and nephews.
C: what happened the day that you first got arrested?
Imani: The day I first got arrested
C: like you woke up at home . . .
Imani: I woke up, I got up. I got in the shower; I got dressed. My hair was already done so I didn’t have to do it. Then me and my friends we went to the store. It was a man in the store. He had long hair. He seen us and he kept looking so I’m just looking too.
Getting watched when she’s shopping isn’t new to her -- Imani’s had to get used to it growing up in upstate New York. She’s young and black in a place where African Americans make up only 12 percent of the population...but 72 percent of the juveniles held in the county jail are black.
So when Imani and her friends were in the dollar store and the long-haired guy was following them around, she says...
Imani: He grabbed my friend so I pushed him. So then we end up leaving out the store. He followed us. We was fitting to run but i said we don’t have to run because we didn’t do nothing. So the police car stopped, the one officer got out, so he like, “did y’all just leave the store?” So I’m like, yeah. Cause I didn’t think we was gonna get arrested cause we didn’t do nothing. So I’m like yeah, I told him yeah. They just told me to put my hands behind my back and cuffed me.
Unlike a lot of teenagers, when Imani was accused of shoplifting, the store didn’t call her parents to come get her. Instead, she was arrested by five police officers and brought to the county jail. It’s called the Justice Center. She was 16 when she was arrested and in New York, that means she’s considered an adult. And that’s why she was locked up in an adult jail. Her bail was set at $500 but she wasn’t able to pay.
Imani: I never actually thought about being arrested going to the Justice Center. My first impression was, what did i get myself into?
Imani knows about this place...she told me her step-sister, Chuniece, died at the Justice Center in 2009. She was 21 years old and pregnant and having painful complications. Chuniece cried in pain all night but was ignored. She died in her cell.
Imani: The lady put me in a single cell. It was little, it was disgusting, it was dirty.
A few days later a corrections officer said she was making too much noise with another inmate. So he locked her in her cell.
Imani: so i wrote a grievance on him and when the sergeant came i gave it to the sergeant and the sergeant asked me, “do you want to play this game? Who you think gonna win? Me or you?”
She was moved to the isolation unit, or the box.
Imani: So I handed him the grievance, he told us pack our stuff. I end up flooding my cell and they put me in the box.
C: what does it mean to be in the box there?
Imani: When I was in the box, I was in there for 45 days. Somewhere around there.
You walk in, the sink and the toilet is connected. The bed is on the floor, no TV, no phones, nothing. I had no contact with the outside world, whatsoever. Couldn’t make no phone calls, couldn’t see nobody, couldn’t contact nobody. Couldn’t talk. Nothing. You in your cell. You just sit there and wait till the next day to come.
Imani was locked in her cell for 23-hours a day, and sometimes 24. Even though she was a high school student, she was denied education of any kind. That one hour outside the cell was in a filthy, empty cage so she could have “recreation” by herself.
Imani: I’m always cold. The blankets is thin.
One of the reasons the Justice Center earned its spot among New York’s worst jails is that when inmates file grievances, many are just ignored.
Imani: I don’t know, it made me feel like nothing. Like an animal. You wake up, they give you your tray through your slot, that’s it.
The jail offered no mental health services to kids in solitary. While she was there, Imani wrote a letter to her mom saying she didn’t want to live anymore.
Imani: They come and put you in the shower if it’s your day to shower; the shower’s open. It’s no nothing. Just an open shower. And they see you; they be staring sometimes. Like one day I’m in the shower, the man came and he said, you done? I said, ‘no.; he said, well hurry up. And he’s standing there. Then I got out, he was staring at me. I put the towel over me. He still was looking at me. And i’m like, write a grievance nothing happen.
Josh: 95 percent of the kids who were there for over 60 days were getting locked in solitary confinement at some point. I mean that’s really striking.
Josh Cotter is an attorney for Legal Services of Central New York. He says the corrections officers called Imani horrible names all the time.
Josh: you know, you call a 16 year old girl a little bitch or a little slut when you’re a grown man, is just reprehensible. But that kind of attitude that they would have, would really have an affect on the kids because if they’re being disrespected, it makes it harder for them to give the respect back.
Cotter started investigating how juveniles were being treated at the Justice Center. A correctional expert found the solitary confinement unit there was one of the worst he’d ever seen... So Cotter and the New York Civil Liberties Union sued. The lawsuit was settled last summer and now the jail can no longer hold kids in 23-hour isolation. But for kids like Imani, the damage is already done. She was held there for four months.
Imani: When i got out i don't know i really couldn’t sleep because it have an effect on you, you be in the box for so long and then you get out, you still feel like and animal sometimes.
When I visited Imani she was back in jail. Once again she had been followed when she was shopping . . . this time at the mall. She got upset...and walked out of the store. But she was still holding an item of clothing. Imani wanted to make a point...so she sat on a bench outside the store and just waited.
We wanted to know how many other kids are still being held in solitary. The lawsuit brought against the jail where Imani was held only covers that one county -- and in New York state there are 61 more. And each one of those counties has their own rules about how they treat teenagers in their jails. I asked the New York Civil Liberties Union how many of these jails are using solitary confinement with kids and they told me that no one knows for sure. That’s because tracking the precise number of kids that are subjected to solitary isn’t possible -- and not just in New York, but nationwide. States don’t publish that data. And it turns out in New York, they weren’t even collecting it.
Basically, there’s this information black hole. So we decided to partner with an investigative reporter named Taylor Eldridge at The Marshall Project. We wanted to find out where kids are being subjected to this.
Taylor: yeah so we called every county in the state, so that’s 62 counties. We called sheriffs, jail administrators, wardens, public defenders, advocates, anyone we could find really who would know how teenagers are handled in the jail.
We heard back from 34 counties, and of those 29 of them said that they use solitary for teenagers. That’s most of the counties that responded and almost half of the counties in all of New York State. Josh Cotter, the attorney that brought the case against the Justice Center, filed a class action suit in July against another upstate county jail over its use of solitary.
Taylor: yeah, so people are paying attention to this. There was a rule change that was proposed by the state commission that oversees county jails. But it really only changes the amount of paperwork that jails have to do.
Which means that now local jails will have to document when they put kids in solitary, but it doesn’t say they can’t do it. All a jail has to do is say that a kid is a threat to the good working order of the facility and solitary is approved.
Kai: To read the full investigation, go to The Marshall Project-dot-org. I’m back with Dwayne -- who actually has some very personal experience with solitary confinement.
Kai: So Dwayne, I know from reading your memoir that throughout your nine years in prison you went in and out of solitary regularly.
Dwayne: Yeah. Well when you say that it makes it seem like I was doing something. [laughing] It's funny because like if I tell somebody now, you know, I was in solitary confinement at least six times and each time was for some charge. But all of those charges were trumped up. None of those charges actually reflected me being a danger to the institutional community.
Kai: Like what what's an example?
Dwayne: Like once, I was being told to move from one cell to another. And I didn't want to. And then the guard was like look if you don't move, you go into the hole. And so I touched his arm to say look OK I'll move. And I touched his arm and he said that was assault. He slammed me against the wall, put me in handcuffs and basically dragged me down the steps and threw me in a hole and I got 10 days in the hole for that. I literally just touched his arm; and I was 16 years old. I had to learn not to talk with my hands.
Kai: But ironically it was while you were in the hole that you found something that would be a big part of your future right.
Dwayne: I mean you know I felt I discovered poetry in solitary confinement. I mean you have to you have to imagine a parallel row of cells with a first floor and second floor and no library. And every man in these cells understands how horrific it is to be inside this cell and the only thing that we could do for each other really was make sure that we shared what we had in terms of things that stimulate our minds. And so you could go to the door and just say somebody send me a book and a stranger would slide a book under your cell. It would come like you know like a gift from the heavens or something. And then one day I get Dudley Randall's the black poets, didn't ask for it, don't know who gave it to me at the time I had no real interest in poetry. I discovered Robert Hayden and I discovered Ethridge Knight. And you know Ethridge Knight had done time in prison, started writing poetry and then came home and became a poet and I'm reading his biography while I'm in a solitary confinement cell and I'm thinking that like this could be me.
And so I just sort of made a decision. And so from that day forth I told myself that I was a poet. I had a one of those ink pens that was just long as your index finger made of plastic. I would take that ink pen and because I couldn't really afford writing tablets, right. I would write on the back of request forms, and I would rip them in half and I imagine myself creating a kind of book. And over the course of like 18 months. I literally wrote thousands of poems; they were the worst thing that's ever been written in the history of the English language. But I still have them to this day. I remember ripping the sheet and using a sheet to create thread to bind these pages together. Imagining that I was creating a book that I had written and that I would be able to share with people. And so for me you know I think about it now and when I tell the story I think that it is so much wasted potential but even more than wasted potential like we waste the ability to provide people with opportunities. And that's the thing that's for me is sort of most tragic.
KAI: Coming up, we get back to Z’s story. We left way back in episode 2, as he was headed to back into the system. That’s next.
Kai: Ok so, Remember Z? ...he was the kid that struggled to keep his temper in check.
Z: Everyday I wake up, everytime I go to sleep I think about being locked up. I be having dreams.
J: What happens in the dreams?
Z: I just picture myself being remanded. They putting those tight handcuffs on me and bringing me to the back room locking me in the cell, and I’m doing time.
Kai: And then he did get arrested. He says it was the stupidest thing he’d ever done.
Jared: When Z got re-arrested, he’d been out for 7 months. Things were a bit bumpy at first. But since then he stopped smoking weed, he landed a summer internship at a law firm, and he had a big rap competition coming up.
J: that’s all you got? What you mean?
Z: I just started writing yesterday. I was tired
Z felt vindicated. To him, these improvements showed that it wasn’t him who was the issue… it was his environment.
Z: When i was locked up, I was going through a lot of stuff. They thought I was just some crazy person turning up for no reason, but I was just so stressed out from from not being able to go home, from the food you eat that I was like really turning up.
J: And you got that corrected now?
Z: Yeah, I got that correct. I’m out in society now. You don’t see me committing any more crimes.
Finally, he could move on with his life. He was hanging out with his friends and talking to girls. Z calls himself a ladies man, so naturally when he met a girl on Facebook, he wanted to meet up with her. Z was at home with his mom that night.
Kia: Little girl started calling him. She decided she's going to jump in a cab, from, she lives in the Bronx, and take the cab to my house.
They live deep in Queens so that’s not cheap…at the very least, 50 bucks...but like a lot of teenagers, they didn't plan very well.
Kia: She had called him downstairs; and he came back upstairs and told me that “Mommy, she don't have any money. She was trying to hop out and the cab driver locked her in.” And I just looked at him because I didn't have any money to pay for a cab. I guess he thought he was going to get the girl out the cab. That was his focus. And he got downstairs. And gave the cab driver the little bit of money that he had left from what I gave him the night before. And it wasn't enough. So the cab driver took his money and kept the girl and tried to pull off.
So without thinking twice, he put his hand inside his sweatshirt and pretended he had a gun. The girl got out of the car and the driver left.
Kia: He's paying the consequences of that now. Because even though he didn't have a gun from just that little thing that he did him acting like he had a gun, now he's doing 1 1/3 to 4.
Jared: and it seems like he thought he was doing the right thing at the moment.
Kia: Yeahm he was trying to save the girl. Like any problem we ever had is more of him not being aware of what can happen after.
The cab driver reported the incident. Two weeks later the police showed up at Z’s apartment and arrested him. They searched his place and didn’t find a gun. Before this incident took place he was this close to getting his felony record sealed. Z had what’s called youthful offender status. This means your criminal record can be erased if you demonstrate good behavior. So all he had to do was stay out of trouble for a couple more weeks and he would have been in the clear. But now he’s got another armed robbery charge tagged on top of that. The fact that he says he didn’t actually have a gun doesn’t matter. Simply pretending is enough.
Now Z’s locked up on Rikers Island again-- where his identity is nothing more than an inmate ID number.
J: so i’m gonna visit him at Rikers Island, he’s been in now for the past 2 or 3 weeks
I’d never been to Rikers before.
J: The bus is full. People are trying to see their family
As the bus drives us over the bridge onto the island all you can see is a massive parking lot filled with cars. Rikers isn’t just one jail -- it’s like a separate city full of prisoners.
Corrections officers boarded the bus, it felt like at that moment we all became inmates.
After going through several checkpoints a giant “Corrections” school bus pulled up to drive us to the different jails. The officer driving the bus, the only white guy, was blasting some country song about breaking all the rules.
[Kenny Chesney song playing]
I finally made it to Z’s jail, the juvenile unit. We were placed in a small room with thick glass walls so the guards could watch us. Z was wearing a green jumpsuit that signified he was in the isolation unit. He had a smile on his face, which was nice to see...considering his situation.
After the warm greeting it was just like, this is where we are now…and the last time I saw you we were in the park talking about your new school. He regretted how things played out. “I was this close,” he said. “That was the stupidest thing I ever did.” When the guards came back for Z, I gave them a piece of paper with my phone number on it so he could call me. They told me they’d give it to him...They never did.
J: Just left and he got emotional; and it was very difficult to see him in such a vulnerable state of mind. I tried to stay as positive as i can and give him advice on how to deal with it but, ultimately I’ve never been to jail before, I’ve never worn handcuffs. I don’t know, i was like claustrophobic . . . I couldn’t wait to get out of there, but guess what -- he’s still in there. And it’s not looking like he’s getting out anytime soon.
Another month passes before I see Z again. This time in court. His lawyer got him a deal: for pleading guilty and serving a minimum of 20 months, he’ll be eligible for Youthful offender status again….so it’s still possible he could leave with a clean record. I wrote him a letter hoping that would work to get him my phone number...then one day he called.
J: Hello? Say that again?
Z: I been better. What you doing?
J: Just working. what you mean you been better, tell me what’s going on?
Z: I got into an argument with my mom’s earlier. She told me that commissary is a reward.
In jail, commissary is everything. It’s like an account where inmates can get money sent to them. Then they can buy things they need like snacks, deodorant, toothpaste...or things to pass the time like a radio. But when you get in trouble, LIKE Z HAS BEEN, they can fine you, and that money comes out of your account.
Z: She told me you shouldn't be rewarded, you should be getting punished for doing something bad. And that just blew my whole day up. I hung up on her and said I wasn’t ever talking to her again.
J: You’re never talking to her again?
Z: Yeah, for the rest of my bid
J: Come on, man.
Kia couldn’t afford to keep re-upping his account every time he got in trouble.
J: I know you frustrated, i know you are man. I know you not happy in there man, I just want you to try to keep your head up and try to stay positive. I know it’s tough, I know the food there is bad
Z: It’s starting to get me a little bit tight, I’m about to start getting back in trouble and stuff because there’s no reason to fake be good in here, like...
J: Why would you start getting in trouble again, I don’t understand?
Z: Just to go back to isolation again. Cause like, when I’m in GP, general population, I’m not getting the stuff I need like commissary and all that type of stuff. Everybody got their stuff and I’m just like, damn. Like where the fuck my shit at?
Things have once again closed in for Z. Now at 17 going on 18, his ambitions of being a normal teenager, rapper and high school grad are now reduced to commissary. Z decides that if he isn’t gonna have it, he doesn’t want to be around other people that do. So he chooses to get in trouble so he’ll be sent to isolation -- at Rikers that’s a separate unit where juveniles don’t get access to commissary.
J: How’s is … how is isolation better?
Z: It’s not but I’m just gonna be by myself. I don’t got temptations and stuff.
J: What like less people mess with you in isolation?
Z: No, I don’t got temptations like when they eating shit to rob them. I ain’t got nothing. It’s bad enough I’m in here…. I need something to make my time go by. Like I don’t know, it’s crazy. Like people don’t know what really go on in here.
Z is scheduled to be transferred to prison on his 18th birthday.
J: Do you know where you going?
Z: Upstate in a couple of days and I can’t call nobody when i get up there, unless that one free call that’s it.
J: I’m sorry, man i’m sorry to hear that man. That’s unfortunate. Alright man,
J: Take care
Z: Alright, see you bro.
He seemed different on this call -- he wasn’t that kid trying to be good, joking around...he’s transitioned back into what he was trying to get out of. And now he’s just figuring out how to survive. I went upstate with his mom to go visit him. She told me about why he got sent there.
Kia: I sent him a package, With a whole bunch of things that he like.
His mom isn’t always able to give so when she does it means a lot, because Z doesn’t know when he’ll be able to get again.
Kia: I wanted him to be normal and feel like you know He was home and he can eat and drink and stuff so I went and racked up on everything that he loves and put in a box and sent it. And I guess some inmate was trying to take stuff out of his box. And that turned into an argument. They ended up fighting and then the COs came...
Z lost control.
Kia: they ended up fighting a COs came and then that was all that she wrote.
She says it was serious enough to get him sent to a maximum security prison. He turned 18 in 23-a-day solitary confinement -- and then spent the next three months there. How’s that for a happy birthday?
Kia: Z is in Coxsackie Correctional Facility and he’s just coming out of SHU.
That’s the solitary confinement unit.
Kia: He’s been out of SHU for about 3 days. So now he's in general population and just waiting to see how that's gonna be. I believe he has no idea where he is, how far he is away from home.
Jared: Yes so we are in the middle of nowhere. We're very far from New York City
Kia: I just don't know what to expect like when I get there... All i can do is just wait and see. he should be coming out all smiles.
Jared: This is it. This is it.
Kia: I want to take a picture. Looks like a maybe campground.
Jared: Until you see the barbwire fence. And you remember you’re at a Correctional Facility. Maximum security right?
Kia: … Yes. It actually it looks just like on TV.
Jared: I'm literally afraid to get out of this car right now, I’m not going to lie to you. I'm gonna check my pockets and make sure I don’t have any contraband. Ok, Jared Marcelle signing out.
[car door shuts]
We wanted to record the visit.
Come on up.
But they wouldn’t let us. Surprise, surprise.
About an hour later….
J: Alright, let’s talk through that smoke break.
We started our three hour journey back home.
J: How did that go?
Kia: It was intense. I was afraid that my son is going to get in trouble.
The visiting room is in a cafeteria lined with vending machines. Z came out in a green jumpsuit, like when he was at Rikers, except he was heavier...his hair was grown out. Z got right to business. After being in solitary for so long, he was eager to get access to commissary. Z had called his mom and made specific requests. She was able to meet some of them. She brought soap, toothpaste and sneakers.
Jared: Describe the energy when he came into the room.
Kia: He was anxious because he wanted to know if I got everything he said and I'm just you know like all people I'm going through it so it’s a little hard for me at this time. But I did the best I can. I mean, I came with sneakers.
When he got out of isolation he borrowed things from other inmates … and now he owed some people.
Kia: So I think he was promising people stuff that he didn't know whether he was going to get and that could cause problems.
Z had asked his mom bring some Black and Mild cigars, but that’s where she drew the line. When Kia told him that, Z became stone cold. He explained that he needed to repay what he borrowed -- or there’d be consequences. This was the second week in a row he was supposed to pay up… and he didn’t have it. He made it clear that as soon as he left us and went back to population, somebody would try to hurt him. And he said he wasn’t going to let that happen.
Kia: I felt like OK, I actually felt like his disability was there today. Like I can see when he start talking a little crazy, talking about turning up.
And Kia doesn’t know if he has the ability to hold himself back. She brought some cash to put in his account but there was no way the money would clear in time.
Kia: I can’t explain what it is, but I can feel things any time he's in a situation he's in trouble, i can feel him. I actually think the worst right now, and that's why i'm trying to get him to payback to these people.
So what was supposed to be a warm visit between mother and son became a tense moment over his safety. I had an idea...that Z give up his new sneakers as payment. Kia had spent the little that she has to get him those shoes -- and they were the only thing he really has to call his own there. So it was a tough decision.
Kia: that was a good idea, giving up the sneakers. i don't know if he's gonna go through with it.
He didn’t want to but ultimately agreed that was the best course of action.
Jared: I hope he does
After getting that out of the way, we got him a double bacon cheeseburger from the vending machine and stuck it in the microwave. Immediately after finishing it, Z wanted another one. It was a luxury to him. He washed it down with an orange soda and a honey bun for good measure.
Jared: I remember you telling me you know you used to give him money when he was a kid and he was always entrepreneurial and he would sell the candy and stuff. In an ironic way, it seems like he's trying to continue that kind of thing here.
Kia: He learned, like he's stuck with everything I've taught him and he's using it to survive. He's trying to find a way to hustle…. in there, to get what he want. But I think there's other things along with it too. I mean if he start doing that, he's going to be known I don't want him to be out there like that. That's when more problems come.
I’ve known Z for almost two years…and a lot of his problems revolve around money and the fact that he doesn’t always have it. Like with his latest armed robbery charge, he didn’t have the money to pay for a cab...and that’s what got him here. Some people might call him a failure because he ended up in prison.
But Z believes the system ruined him. That he’s been unfairly criminalized for mistakes that many teenagers make. Mistakes that will follow him for the rest of his life. Or maybe the juvenile justice system just isn't nuanced enough to help someone like him.
Z has his first parole hearing in a few weeks, but it seems very unlikely he’ll get out. His mom told me he’s back in solitary. She doesn’t know what happened. She can’t communicate with him and neither can I.
KAI: All of the kids we’ve introduced you to in this podcast remain in one way or another caught in the system. They’ve shared their stories with us at a time when they are terribly vulnerable and we thank them and their families for that. And having heard their stories, alll I can conclude is that we owe them a lot more than this -- that we have just got to start thinking in far more radical terms about how to stop punishing and start helping people who do harm, to others or to themselves. So, in the absence of a tidy conclusion... we asked Dwayne to end for us - on a poem. Here’s what he chose.
Dwayne: Alright, So For A Bail Denied: this poem really comes out of my experience working as a public defender. In Connectucutt at least, when a kid goes to adult court, the circuit court, his mother has to stand up and appear before him. So the poem is written from that perspective.
For a Bail Denied.
I won't tell you how it ended,
& his mother won’t, either, but
beside me she stood & some things
neither of us could know. & now,
all is lost; lost is all in the ruins
of what happened after.
The kid, & we should call him kid,
call him a fucking child, his face
smooth & lacking history of razor,
without promise of a mustache,
he walked into court a ghost &
let’s just call it a cauldron, admit
his nappy head made him blacker
than whatever pistol he held,
whatever casket awaited; the
prosecutor’s bald head was black,
or brown but when has brown not
been akin to black here? To abyss
& does it matter (black lives)
if all the prosecutor said of black boys
was that they kill? The child beside
his mother & his mother beside me &
I am no one’s father, just a public
defender, fiddle-footed here, where
the state turns men, women, children
into numbers, searching for a phoenix’s
embers, for angels born in the shadows
of this breaking. This boy beside me’s
wings withering, fool on the brink of life
& broken & it’s all possible, because
one day or night or morning this woman
& a man the boy does not call daddy
fucked in what would be called passion
anywhere else; anywhere else called love.
& the judge spoke & the kid kept confessing:
I did it. I mean, I did it. I mean — Jesus.
& everyone in the room wanted a flask.
The boy’s mother said: This is not
justice. You will not throw my son into
that fucking ocean. She meant prison.
& we was too powerless to stop it.
& we was too tired to be beautiful.
CREDITS // Caught is a production of WNYC Studios and the Narrative Unit of WNYC News.
This episode was reported by Jared Marcelle and Courtney Stein. We partnered with Taylor Eldridge and Kirsten Danis from the Marshall Project. David Jeans and Sophia Paliza-Carre contributed to the solitary investigation. A couple of special thanks for this whole podcast… Dwayne Betts for his consultation on the podcast. You should read his book -- A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison. And we animated one of his poems, it’s really cool. You should check it out at Caught podcast-dot-org.
Also a special thanks to Phi Pham and all of the students at Building Beats - a NYC non-profit that provides music programs that teach entrepreneurial, leadership and life skills to underserved youth. Cayce Means is our technical director and Hannis Brown is our composer.
Our team of talented producers includes Rebecca Carroll, Jessica Miller, and Sophia Paliza-Carre.
Kaari Pitkin is our senior producer. Karen Frillmann is our executive producer.Jim Schachter is our news director. And I’m Kai Wright. Thanks for listening.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.