By Natalie Chang

Illustrations by Simon Prades

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Click icons for audio footnotes from Vaughn Brown, a former juvenile inmate at Rikers Island

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For 23 hours of the day, you will be alone in a six-by-nine-foot room.

You have nothing except a bunk and a sink. If you're lucky, you have a Bible, or a small window.

You will speak to no one.

You do not know when it will end, if ever.

This is how you got here.

Jonathan McClard, 16, “leaned forward toward an officer. A 17-year-old in California “made a smart remark.” Kalief Browder, 16, told another inmate to stop throwing shoes at people. Albert Woodfox, who was in solitary confinement longer than any other American, was too political for guard administrators’ tastes. Barbra Perez, a trans woman, was placed in solitary “for her own protection.” Many are accused of having gang affiliations by inmates being questioned under duress. Some are just on a prison guard’s bad side.

In other words, prison guards and administrators often throw individuals in solitary for minor, arbitrary reasons. Zoom out: Overcrowded prisons and inadequate staffing mean that inmates are placed in solitary when there is no physical room in general holding, or no staff to attend to them. Zoom out one more time: The system of mass incarceration and the sheer number of people being sent to jail and kept waiting for trials produce chaotic backlogs, and prisoners’ voices get lost.

The paths that lead to time in solitary confinement—also known as “the hole,” “SHU” (Segregated Housing Unit), “the box”—vary from institution to institution, but they are also the result of a criminal justice system that emphasizes control over rehabilitation. The cruel irony is that juvenile inmates under 21, who experts agree have the least culpability and highest potential for rehabilitation, are far more likely to “act out” and be placed in isolation as punishment. orange circle with white triangle play symbol

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Click here to watch the trailer for time: the Kalief Browder Story | Premieres March 1

But inmates also land in solitary for their “protection,” perhaps because of their size, or age, or sexuality. “There’s a whole range of reasons that kids can end up in solitary that have nothing to do with their behavior,” says Marc Schindler, the executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, one of the leading organizations in the Stop Solitary for Kids coalition.

Data that measures the movement of inmates through our criminal justice system is spotty at best, and even less comprehensive when it comes to juvenile inmates. In 2013, the Annie E. Casey Foundation estimated that roughly 70,000 inmates 21 or younger were imprisoned in the United States, while a 2010 report by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention found that some 35 percent of surveyed juvenile inmates had been isolated during their sentence. Solitary confinement is considered a form of torture orange circle with white triangle play symbol by more than one human rights organization, and it falls disproportionately, like the prison system as a whole, on black and brown prisoners. It also has not been shown to reduce violence in prisons or to improve inmate behavior. “If you talk to people in solitary confinement, very few of them are out of control,” says Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist who has studied the effects of solitary confinement for decades. “Most of them are quiet and thoughtful.

“They don’t know why they have to spend so much time in solitary.”

After a certain point, depending on your pre-existing mental health, you might have a psychotic break.

Cracks splintering up the cell walls. Insects murmuring under your bed. Phantom voices.

You may feel bursts of rage or sleepwalk through long stretches of numbness.

You may want to harm yourself, just to confirm you still exist.

"The only thing left to do is go crazy." 4

This is what will happen.

The psychological effects perpetrated by solitary confinement are difficult to quantify and summarize, orange circle with white triangle play symbol partly because those effects run the gamut of disordered behavior. A host of studies and experts have pointed to anxiety and panic attacks, hallucinations, loss of impulse control, depression, memory loss, and the overall decline of cognitive function. In young inmates, those effects are amplified as their developing brains struggle to adapt to conditions that run counter to healthy, socialized behavior.

Most alarming, rates of self-harm and suicide skyrocket orange circle with white triangle play symbol in inmates who are held in solitary confinement. Somewhere between three and eight percent of the country’s prison population, they account for 50 percent of prison suicides. “That’s a stunning statistic that says isolation fosters or causes suicide,” says Kupers. Self-harm, he says, “is something I don’t otherwise see in grown men. Cutting becomes much more common with juveniles. In solitary confinement, it becomes an epidemic.”

When the ACLU filed a lengthy report in 2012 on juvenile inmates in solitary confinement, they included accounts from young people that need neither explanation nor embellishment:

“I felt doomed, like I was being you have the plague or that you are the worst thing on earth.”

“I felt an inner pain not of this world.”

“I feel like I am alone, like no one cares about me—sometimes I feel like, why am I even living?”

“I just felt like I wanted to die, like there was no way out…. I couldn’t breathe.”

According to Kupers, there is also visible, biological proof that solitary derails a teenager’s brain development, not only increasing the likelihood of disordered behavior, but also making them less receptive to rehabilitation. In adolescent brains, the pre-frontal cortex (which controls higher-level thinking, such as judgment and morality) and the temporal lobe (which is responsible for processing and interpreting sensory information) are still adjusting their interaction with each other, which is why teenagers are more likely to be impulsive, irritable, or circle with white triangle play symbol

“The effect of isolation is to exaggerate the activity in the temporal lobe, which drives that free-floating anxiety,” Kupers says. “There’s also an inability to develop the pre-frontal cortex because no meaningful activity is going on…. That’s a very dangerous combination which probably means they’re going to get in more trouble as they get older.”

Anything that would provide the needed meaningful activity—education, counseling, sufficient exercise—is denied to juveniles in solitary. The burden of solitary is not only psychological decline but also the lost opportunity for education and rehabilitation. “In solitary,” says Schindler, “you’re cut off from those kinds of programs.”

Schindler and Kupers point to a nonliteral type of death as well—a social, emotional death, in which inmates cease to be social, relational beings. “The average story,” says Kupers, “is ‘I worked so hard to control my anger so I wouldn’t get into more trouble, but then I start suppressing all my feelings. I lose touch with what I’m feeling. Then I don’t really know what I feel.’”

Inmates in solitary can try to fight that psychic decay by yelling to each other through the walls or talking briefly with prison guards, Kuper says, but over time, they stop trying. They are more likely to lie listlessly in their cells, rejecting whatever brief chances to communicate they get. “I asked them, ‘Why don’t you talk?’ And they say, ‘Well, I don’t have anything to say.’”

Even if you get out, you don’t really. You see the cell when you close your eyes. You dream about it.

You question whether you actually left.

Talking to people feels too hard. You don’t remember how, so you avoid them.

You prefer small, solitary spaces. You’re paranoid, prone to anger, insomniac, depressed.

This might last the rest of your life.

“There is always the misery.” 1

This is the aftermath.

The worst part about solitary confinement is that it doesn’t end, even when it does. orange circle with white triangle play symbol As Brian Nelson, a former inmate who spent time in solitary, wrote in Hell Is a Very Small Place: “The worst part is I think I’m still there. I’m so afraid I’m gonna wake up and be back there.” Enceno Macy, who was first put in solitary when he was only 13, wrote that solitary “encouraged me to retreat deep into a demented reality where I was so alone, it made me feel as though I wasn’t meant for this world. I still feel that way to this day—like I don’t fit.”

Kalief Browder, after spending three years in Rikers Island, two of which were in solitary, took to locking himself in his room and pacing. He had always maintained his innocence, and finally the case was dismissed because there was no evidence of his guilt. After he returned home, his family members said he was paranoid and withdrawn, though growing up, he had been known as fun, smart, social, engaged. His mother, Venida, used to call him “Peanut.” After his time in prison, he told her more than once that he didn’t know if he could trust her. “Mentally, he was still in Rikers,” she told The Marshall Project.

“His personality was gone. His happiness was gone. You saw a darkness in him, versus the bubbly, the energetic, the outgoing from before,” says Deion Browder, Kalief’s older brother. “He became a shell.”

“We really have to help them dig themselves out of a hole that they were placed in, quite literally,” says Schindler. “We have to recognize the induced trauma.” illustration of person looking off into distance Some states are trying. Missouri, for example, eliminated solitary holding cells for juveniles in favor of dorm-like settings. In Indiana and Ohio, solitary for juveniles is severely restricted. “There’s no question that it can be done,” Schindler says, but states and institutions must be willing to invest the time and money required for programs that improve staff-inmate relationships and reduce solitary confinement for juveniles or, better yet, eliminate it.

But the criminal-justice and prison system that leads to a “culture of excessive solitary confinementorange circle with white triangle play symbol must also change, he says: “The first thing we should do is not put [juveniles] in solitary confinement at all.”

When it comes to solitary, says Furst, “This is really not who we are as Americans. We're actually violating the Constitution for millions of Americans on multiple levels. The Sixth Amendment: fair and speedy trial. The Eighth Amendment: cruel and unusual punishment. This is not right.” New York courts seemed to agree, passing legislation last year, known as “Kalief’s Law,” ensuring that arrested individuals move more quickly to court hearings. President Obama also banned solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons in January 2016.

In his announcement, Obama cited Kalief Browder’s case. Six months earlier, after two years of “freedom” from Rikers Island, Browder pushed himself feet-first through a window in his childhood home with a cord around his neck. It was a method he was thought to have learned in prison.

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“He may have hung himself, but the strings were pulled by the system,” Venida once said. This is a reality that Kalief Browder’s mother lived with every day: that her son didn’t take his own life so much as submit to a weight he carried with him out of the hole. The imagery sticks: Kalief’s body, the cord around his neck, its other end disappearing somewhere in the depths of Rikers Island. orange circle with white triangle play symbol

Venida Browder passed away last year from complications following a heart attack. A few months before, she told The Marshall Project, “They destroyed my family, and they definitely destroyed me.”

That is the legacy and the cost of solitary confinement: The ravages of the prison system do not end when a sentence does. The failures of the federal justice system, including a reliance on solitary confinement, are not confined to its victims. They also decimate families and infect entire communities with fear. For juveniles, solitary confinement interrupts their most crucial stage of self-determination, robs them of it, then returns them to society without the resources they need to process their trauma.

“Kalief’s case shows that a teenager can actually go from having a natural childhood to being broken in three years time, just because of solitary confinement,” says his brother Deion. “I want his story to be his legacy.”

Kupers, Schindler, and other experts in the field are hesitant to make optimistic predictions in the face of a new administration in Washington, the fact that ending solitary confinement is challenging even when institutions pledge to do so, and the irrefutable damage that has already been done to inmates former and current. “I’ve sometimes felt pressure to create an inspiring story out of the worst experience of my life,” Sarah Shourd writes in Hell Is a Very Small Place. “But it didn’t make sense—not then and not now.”

Her story may not be inspiring, but first-hand testimony from her and others, including Kalief Browder and his mother, represents the best hope for change. Cries from what Shourd calls “the deep-end of our prison system,” they speak to the multiple traumas inflicted on some of our most vulnerable citizens. They form the basis of a movement against solitary confinement and against mass incarceration. And they let survivors of the system confirm their existence, out here in the open, in the world that was once denied to them, a world that even now does not feel safe. orange circle with white triangle play symbolblack square to represent being boxed / confined in a dark place

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Jenner Furst
Executive Producer
Time: The Kalief Browder Story

Atlantic Re:think

What drew you to Kalief Browder's story?

Jenner Furst

I saw this as an opportunity to take one human experience and the tragedy of everything that could go wrong for a child and dissect the key issues related to his case and his journey through several systems that all failed him. From the foster care system, to the public education system, to the probation system, the bail system, the jail system, the mental health system, the solitary confinement system, the failing court system. There is so much to learn from Kalief Browder’s life about these massive failings. It could be an awakening for America.


What most surprised you as you developed the show?


The really shocking revelation was that a child who's being held in pre-trial detention, has not been convicted of any crime, and is technically innocent could be tortured in an environment like Rikers Island. Specifically, in the punitive segregation unit which was renowned for abuse, neglect, and corruption. We're not always doing this to the criminals and Hannibal Lecters of the world. We are treating people who are technically innocent under the law, who have not been convicted of anything, as if they are less than human.


You visited Rikers’ punitive segregation building as part of your research for the show. What was it like?


It's a place filled with pain and anguish, and you can feel it in the air when you walk in. You can hear it, you can smell it, and it's not just when you're inside: You can feel it emanating from the building. You can hear people yelling from outside the building. There are people who are banging on the cells in anguish, yelling profanities at you, sometimes yelling desperate calls for help, and the guards dismiss it: "Oh, they're just acting up. They're acting up because we have a visitor." Knowing what we know about brain damage, the experience of solitary, and how it is technically torture, I don't think it's just acting up. You're witnessing pain, confusion, psychosis, suicidal thoughts.


What did you learn about what happens to inmates held in solitary for extended periods of time?


One of our sources was able to outline how past trauma is magnified tremendously in an environment like solitary confinement. It's torture on top of torture. Someone who may have had their case dismissed after five years of crawling through the Bronx criminal court is coming home with PTSD, clinically. Some of them are coming home with permanent brain damage.


And Kalief’s case really encapsulated all the injustices of the system at once.


The Department of Justice had done a scathing report on Rikers, and they liken the environment to Lord of the Flies. People being beaten, multiple head shots, falsification of documents, starvation, and rat poison had been put in the food of some inmates.

And after all that, when Kalief gets out, he has no mental health services that are useful: He's floating about and he's over-medicated. It doesn't do much to break down this massive level of trauma that this young man had endured. The mental health system in New York City was one of the last systems that failed him before he died.

The experience of being in the evening news, and being in articles: It dies down. When that attention died down, the Browder family was terribly vulnerable. They felt like, “Wait a second, no one's talking about Kalief anymore. No one's here for us. Our case hasn't moved forward and we're not getting justice.” I was present for Venida Browder's passing and in the room with her when she died. I saw the collateral damage of the criminal justice system. We were with her family, knowing that they were experiencing their second murder, that her death of a broken heart was not a health issue, but a betrayal by the city of New York and by America.

This is what the work is about. We hope that people are inspired to just click through to find out what this means for them locally. This is what I hope they'll absorb from this series: the incredible human consequence of our justice system and how terribly broken it is.



March 3rd, 2011, I got arrested for attempted robbery. Something that I was guilty of. I guess at that time I was 19, and I was a little bit confused about a lot of things. Making a lot of bad decisions. I really have no one to blame but myself. I spent about 37 months on Rikers Island.
Vaughn Brown, a former juvenile inmate at Rikers Island