After being held at Riker’s Island for three years without a trial, Kalief Browder committed suicide at the age of 19. Diane Sears asks if a mentoring program would have changed this horrific injustice.
The report of the death by suicide of twenty-two year old Kalief Browder haunts me. Hearing a story about a young man who has been incarcerated at the age of 16 is not new to me. For the past 16 years, my mailbox has been flooded with letters from incarcerated men from Maine to Hawaii asking me to publish their poems and articles who tell me that their journey to prison began at age 16 or 17. The horrors that they have witnessed or have been the victims of, their dehumanization, and their deep spiritual, emotional, and psychological pain are always unspoken. Writers, like musicians, “speak in code”. It is the “code” — the “unspoken” — that I see and hear. I see their tears and hear their silent screams in every comma and in every empty space between every word and paragraph of every poem and every essay that I read and publish.
Kalief’s life was turned inside out at the age of 16 when he found himself incarcerated at Riker’s Island — one of the global village’s largest correctional facilities. Maintaining his innocence, Kalief refused to take a plea deal. What was he accused of? Allegedly stealing a back pack for which authorities set bail at US$3,000.00 — bail his family could not afford to pay. Although he was in the autumn years of puberty, Kalief was still a child — somebody’s child — somebody’s son — Our Son. And Our Son spent three horrific years of his young life in prison waiting for a trial — waiting to prove his innocence — placed in solitary confinement and consistently beaten for no apparent reason. Two incidents of the physical violence he endured were captured on the prison’s surveillance cameras and made public by The New Yorker. Kalief — Our Son — was one of the approximately 800,000 souls released from American correctional facilities annually. Every year, 800,000 souls return to our communities — psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually shattered — like Kalief — Our Son. His story is as much a teachable moment about mental health care as it is about mass incarceration and criminal justice reform.
Could we have saved Kalief — Our Son — if a mandatory two-tiered psychological debriefing program existed for all formerly incarcerated individuals and their families and loved ones? What if immediately after release from prison, for a mandatory minimum of one year, Kalief was enrolled in intensive sessions which provided him with the space and tools he needed to trust again, to love again, and to heal his emotional, psychological, and spiritual wounds? What if, immediately after release from prison, Kalief was matched up with a Mentor — a formerly incarcerated individual who has successfully reintegrated into society and is psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually whole — someone who has walked where Kalief had walked — someone with whom he could confide deepest fears?
Would we have a different story to tell?
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