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Exhibition sheds light on Kalief Browder's years in solitary confinement


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Hari Sreenivasan: In June, New York City's board of corrections announced it will end the practice of solitary confinement beginning this fall. The announcement was made just days after the 6th anniversary of Kalief Browder's death. The New York City Teen spent three years inside Rikers, two of those in solitary confinement, without being convicted of a crime. Browder subsequently struggled with his mental health and eventually took his own life.

A new exhibition in Brooklyn, New York seeks to shed light on Browder's story. NewsHour Weekend's Ivette Feliciano spoke with artist Coby Kennedy about his exhibit.

Ivette Feliciano: In his piece "Kalief Browder: The Box'' at Brooklyn New York's Pioneer Works, artist Coby Kennedy created an eight by ten by six feet sculpture that replicates the exact dimensions of a solitary confinement cell on New York City's Rikers Island. The glass surfaces are etched with line renderings of the bed, barred window, and toilet along with text.

Coby Kennedy: Sandblasted on the side of the piece here is 'Kalief Browder was kidnaped off the street by police, taken away from his mother, family, friends held for over one thousand days on Rikers Island for a crime he did not commit, and was physically and mentally tortured by being locked in a solitary box for over 700 of those days. Twenty three hours a day.'

Ivette Feliciano: When Kennedy first learned about Browder's story through news reports, he says he felt incapacitated for days.

Coby Kennedy: It hit me so hard because I feel a real personal connection to it, because what he made it through and what he endured has been one of my worst nightmares ever since I was a child. To be held in that way, you know, you're kidnapped .

Ivette Feliciano: In addition to his time in solitary, Browder was physically and mentally abused by prison guards and other incarcerated people.

Ivette Feliciano: You talk about this chronic fear of having a situation like that from the time you were, you know, a child. Where does that stem from?

Coby Kennedy: For me, I've experienced, whether was growing up in D.C. as a kid or living my life in New York, honestly, every country I've been to, you know, I've experienced these moments where I've come very, very close to having that freedom taken away, a lot of times just for being who I am.

I knew going into this that the piece itself being a recreation of a solitary confinement cell, could be triggering for people. But then on the flip side, there are vast, vast amounts of communities and people that need to see this and need to experience this.

Ivette Feliciano: To that end, the installation is presented in conjunction with a four-part town hall series led by the civic engagement organization For Freedoms. It introduces participants to the damaging impacts of mass incarceration. Discussions center the voices of legal scholars, activists and formerly incarcerated people at the forefront of the movement to end solitary confinement.

Jerome Wright: I'm standing in front of you as somebody telling you, I suffered the inhumanity the indignity the trauma and the torture of solitary confinement. Nobody should be treated like that, not any single human being.

Ivette Feliciano: Sam Giarratani of Negative Space, a social justice consulting company, facilitated the collaboration between Kennedy, Pioneer Works and For Freedoms.

Sam Giarratani: Because it's a show around mass incarceration, there's sort of like a small sect of people that will continue to come and see shows like this. But because this is happening at Pioneer Works, I'm hoping that we just reach a little bit more of a broader audience. Even if it's not completely changing a mindset, it's at least educating people on, you know, the halt solitary movement and what they're doing to change policies.

Ivette Feliciano: What is it that you feel like the other side or people from this subjective reality that's so different from yours, what are they missing about Kelief's story?

Coby Kennedy: They don't realize that they would offer him plea bargains all the time while he was locked up, and he wouldn't he wouldn't take them. He was out for two years after after he was released, fighting for his case against the city. Not just that, but fighting against the realities of the institutions that were still coming down on him, still trying to paint him as a criminal.

Ivette Feliciano: Browder's trauma caused lasting depression that resulted in his suicide in 2015, about two years after his release. But it's Browder's strength in solitary confinement and his perseverance that Kennedy wants the public to remember him for.

Coby Kennedy: It's the story of a boy finding so much fortitude and so much strength within himself that no matter what came at him, he always fought back against it in defense of his own humanity and his own truth.

Coby Kennedy: The most important part of this piece is the quote, that's sandblasted here, 'The way I looked at it, if I got to stay here just to prove that I'm innocent, so be it.' It's by Kalif himself.

Ivette Feliciano: Browder's family settled a civil lawsuit with the City of New York in 2019, yet no one was held accountable for having incarcerated the 16-year-old for three years with neither trial nor proof. Kennedy hopes the sculpture will illuminate the "Halt Solitary" movement, and Browder's overwhelming endurance inside the box.

Coby Kennedy: A lot of people miss that in the whole story. Is Kalief's strength, you know, his fortitude just nonstop, even all the way up to the last part of his life.

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