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Shannon Williams

Shannon Williams, President of Recorder Media Group

Unfortunately, there are people in the United States who have done bad things. Fortunately, however, there are systems in place to punish such people for their wrongdoings.

Seems pretty clear-cut, huh?

If you responded yes, you should have known better.

Oftentimes within the criminal justice system — and specifically relative to the penal system — lines get blurred, and the repercussions for a person’s misdeed are not consistent with the actual crime committed.

Kalief Browder’s situation is a great example to accentuate my point.

In 2010, then-16-year-old Browder was accused of stealing a backpack. He was sent to New York’s Rikers Island to await trial.

Yes, Rikers Island. For allegedly stealing a backpack. At 16 years old.

Let that settle in for a moment.

While detained at Rikers Island, Browder claimed to have been subjected to unspeakable treatment by inmates and guards. In addition, he spent nearly two years in solitary confinement.

Browder was released in 2013 after never standing trial.

He tried earnestly to reintegrate into society, even completing a semester at community college, but the damage was already done. Life was too hard for Browder. The memories of the trauma he endured while incarcerated engulfed him post-prison, and he was never fully able to grasp the concept of life in its fullness, probably because life itself escaped him at age 16.

One Saturday afternoon, Browder committed suicide. He hung himself with an air conditioner cord. He was only 22 years old.

This past week, President Barack Obama wrote a column in the Washington Post announcing a ban on solitary confinement for juveniles in the federal prison system. The executive order also prohibits federal correctional institutions from housing people in solitary confinement for “low-level offense.” The president is also calling for expanded treatment for mentally ill prisoners.

Obama’s recent efforts are part of his larger push for criminal justice reform. His willingness to tackle the inconsistent and often discriminatory practices at the Federal Bureau of Prisons will be one of his greatest legacies.

People who commit crimes should be punished. However, the punishment has to be consistent with the crime. There is no way Kalief Browder should have spent nearly three years in prison without a conviction. There is no way he should have been subjected to 23 hours a day of solitary confinement. And there is no reason Browder should be dead now.

The sad reality is, there are millions of Browders in this country, millions of people who get lost in the system like Browder did and millions who receive sentences far more severe than their crimes.

Don’t get me wrong — people need to be punished for their crimes. There are even juvenile offenders who are deservingly serving extended sentences because of the extreme or heinous nature of their crimes. However, in order to give all Americans a fair shot at life or reintegration into society, there must be proper systems in place. More importantly, the systems must have effective and constant checks and balances to ensure the highest ethical standards are part of everyday culture.

There is no way we can subject inmates to unjustified solitary confinement or other forms of maltreatment and then expect them to seamlessly reintegrate into society without mental or emotional trauma or anger. Thinking otherwise is far-reaching and unrealistic.


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