Written by James Donnell

Unfortunately, many people around the world are coming to grips with the harsh reality that many criminal justice systems that exist in both developed and developing countries often work to the disadvantage of non-white individuals.  This horrific perception has been the reality for people of color since the beginning of time.  Therefore, it should come as no surprise that “in the land of the free” the United States has more citizens incarcerated that any other country. This particular criminal justice system that punishes citizens due to the color of their skin rather than the severity of the crime committed has become the conventional way to combat justice in a nation founded upon the deceptive principles that “all men are created equal.”

In a newly released Netflix documentary entitled, The Kalief Browder Story, it examines the injustices of the United States criminal justice system and explores the maltreatment that many prisoners endure while incarcerated. This particular story became another sobering example of the way the criminal justice system can tear through the lives of especially poor, black, and brown Americans. 

The documentary begins by chronicling the unlawful arrest and detainment of the sixteen year-old New Yorker, Kalief Browder, for allegedly stealing a backpack. This heart-wrenching story will continue to take several more astonishing twists and turns, nonetheless, I believe it is worth stopping to acknowledge that this tragic story all began because of the false accusation of a stolen backpack…

Browder was held at Rikers Island, one of the largest and most dangerous prison facilities in the world, for over 1,000 days without a trial. Browder remained adamant that he was innocent and courageously refused to plead guilty in order to be released. Furthermore, as a vulnerable teenage in a barbaric environment, Browder experienced regular beatings from both fellow inmates and guards as well as, according to his account, starvation and torture.

In response to these claims, Browder was placed in solitary confinement where he spent most of his three year occupancy. Many physiatrists and scholars would argue that that this was the absolute worst decision the prison could have made: placing a sixteen-year child in solitary confinement for an extended amount of time, other than the decision to imprison him without just cause or evidence. Significant research suggests that solitary confinement can result in detrimental psychological effects and can be constituted as a form of torture.

The effects of solitary confinement on juveniles can be highly detrimental to their growth. The isolation of solitary confinement can cause anguish, provoke serious mental and physical health problems, and work against rehabilitation for juveniles. Because the brain is undergoing vital development during this particular stage of life, traumatic experiences like solitary confinement may have a profound effect on their chance to rehabilitate and grow.

In relation to other regions of the world, solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure for prisoners in Europe was largely reduced or eliminated during the twentieth century. In 2004, only 40 out of 75,000 inmates held in England and Wales were placed in solitary confinement cells.


During the documentary Kalief Browder is able to provide his narrative of the traumatic events he experienced. Browder explained that, “When they sent me to Rikers Island I was 16. It was like hell on earth.  Sometimes I feel like I’m never going to be the same. I smile and I joke a lot but deep down I’m a mess. I’m 21 and on the inside I feel like I’m 40.”

Throughout the documentary several interviews take place. Nick Sandow, an actor and producer, popularly known for his role in Orange Is the New Black, stated that, “We say that the system is broken. I think that I’ve come to the realization that it’s doing exactly what it was designed to do and that is to take poor people and people of color and put them out of sight.”

Several civil-rights attorneys rushed to the defence of Browder and began to disseminate his story through the use of social media platforms. Soon afterwards, Browder gained public notoriety and his story caught the attention of prominent New Yorker, Jay-Z and President Obama. In 2013, prosecutors dropped the charges and Browder was released without a trial or a conviction.

Upon his release, Browder resumed his education at the Bronx Community College, as he was motivated to make a name for himself beyond the label of just a prisoner who was unjustly incarcerated. Unfortunately, due to the detrimental psychological effects of being in a prison at such a young age, Browder struggled to re-acclimate back into society.  Browder committed suicide in 2015 after struggling with depression and paranoia, which family members and Browder himself directly attributed to his time at Rikers, specifically in solitary confinement.

The issues of mental health in prisons cannot be overstated. Unfortunately, it’s often overlooked and ignored. The 2009 Bradley report showed that more than 90% of young offenders had a common mental health problem and figures seem equally high for adult prisoners. Stuart Grassian, a board-certified psychiatrist and a former faculty member at Harvard Medical School, concluded that solitary confinement can cause a specific psychiatric syndrome, characterized by hallucinations; panic attacks; overt paranoia; diminished impulse control; hypersensitivity to external stimuli; and difficulties with thinking, concentration and memory.

It is important to highlight the similar injustices and challenges that Browder and many British nationals face while incarcerated abroad. Prisoners Abroad is dedicated to combating these challenges in multitude of ways. First, by effectively and regularly contacting foreign embassies to safeguard the welfare and human rights of British citizens detained overseas. Secondly, they strive to reduce the isolation and deprivation experienced by both prisoners overseas and their families. Thirdly, they implement resources to prevent the destitution and street homelessness among British citizens returning from overseas and providing them with a second chance to rebuild their lives. Lastly and most importantly, Prisoners Abroad is a reactionary service that strives to empower its service users and tailor services to the specific needs of each individual.

If you want to gain a deeper understanding of the injustices and maltreatment that many prisoners endure while incarcerated, I would encourage you to watch this documentary. Furthermore, I challenge any viewer to help raise awareness of the dangers of mental health issues in prisons.

Link to other articles about solitary confinement:

  1. https://www.prisonersabroad.org.uk/news/solitary-confinement-stories-from-inside
  2. https://www.prisonersabroad.org.uk/news/canada-set-for-solitary-confinement-reform