by Kleaver Cruz
Do you remember who you were when you were 16? The places where you spent most of your time? Whom you were there with?
At 16 years old, Kalief Browder was alone. He was labeled with a mix of letters and numbers that made a new identity he wasn’t supposed to have. Kalief found himself amongst the overcrowded and disproportionately large population of Riker’s Island, isolated in a cell where light was hard to find and company impossible to keep. Allegedly, he had stolen a book bag. He was guilty in the state’s eyes whether he had committed the crime or not.
I believe him. I believe that he was innocent and forced to live as guilty because he was a Black boy whom the law saw as a criminal Black man. I believe his stories of how people continued to hurt him again and again because this nation’s social and legal structures gave them more power over him – more power to abuse and erase whatever piece of mind or stability he had left – whatever strength remained to defend his innocence.
Do you remember who you were when you were 19? What you were doing? Whom you were doing that with?
Kalief was filling the rooms where the people he loved watched TV, ate dinner and shot the shit with stories of the trauma he endured. As difficult as it must have been to retell those stories, Kalief found the strength to tell them. I imagine he must have been reckoning with what it meant to be in the world again after being at Riker’s – the dissonance of being alive and not wanting to be.
It takes about an hour and a half to drive from the Main Gate of Vassar College to the gates of Otisville Correctional Facility, a medium security prison in Otisville, NY. The town – a village to be exact – has a standard Chinese food spot, Italian restaurant, a short main street with the basic staples and a few other typical findings of small town America.
In a 12-passenger van along this route, a group of mostly white students and I would engage in various conversations – from the mundane occurrences in pop culture to heated discussions about alternatives to the prison system that some of us were engaging with for the first time and others in a new way.
I was 21 when I finished my second semester in what would ultimately be one of Vassar’s last years administering its Bridging the Gap (BTG) program which brought a small group of students together with incarcerated men who were in the late phases of transitioning out of prison and into what was next for their lives outside of cages.
I was 21 when I received one of the most loving hugs I ever received. 2 years older than Kalief Browder will ever be.
We were told not to be people in the presence of our fellow program participants during the orientation hosted inside of Otisville’s visitor’s room. The tall windows let light in through the panes covered by grates. The seats creaked as people shifted in their seats. Eyes wandered around the room. The counselor’s blonde hair fell straight onto her shoulders, stiff like the skirt suit in which she paced around us. She insisted that we not tell these men with whom we were about to build relationships our last names, the streets from where we were or anything that would make us real people to them. She forcefully implied that they were criminals who signed up for a program in order to prepare them to get out of that prison and not to befriend anyone.
She must have never participated in the program.
During that second semester I was reminded of the first time I sat in a big circle joined by the brilliant men of BTG in the school house at Otisville. We were going around stating how we felt and what we were looking forward to. I expressed discomfort, telling the group that it was upsetting to know that the majority of the other people who looked like me in the room were all incarcerated. That I was only 1 decision away from having ended up in a green jumpsuit. That my mom worked my whole life for me not to enter a prison and here I was voluntarily.
It was 3 months after my 21st birthday and 11 weeks since the program had started. The 11th session was the last and was meant for us to provide feedback about the program. As we did the typical screening process at the entrance of the facility, I felt a bitter sweetness – a taste I’ve also had in my mouth recently after various demonstrations and protests in NYC: an understanding that I would be able to go home and not necessarily alongside everyone with whom I’d developed a connection. People whom I began to love, in a sense.
Chaz, one of the inmates, is a tall man with a smile that warms up a room. He plays many roles and a friend is one of them. He has strength in his voice and a demeanor that is inviting. As the students entered the room, Chaz beamed.
I don’t remember what we talked about that afternoon. I do remember feeling frustrated about the low turn-out of students (this session was optional), but happy that some of us were able to keep our word to offer support with improving the program.
For the ten weeks we had been building with Chaz and the rest of the Otisville men, we hadn’t so much as shaken hands. The endings of those Friday sessions were filled with air fives, air pounds, air hugs and other attempts of pseudo-physical affection. You don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone. Ten weeks of becoming friends with people in a space that prevented all of us from fully being human.
The final session was wrapping up and the Corrections Officer who was on duty throughout most of the program insisted that we weren’t allowed to shake hands. She usually sat outside of the classroom, but this week she closed the door behind her from the inside. With a stern look she insisted, “no handshaking.” She repeated herself a few times.
We got it. With an initial hesitation, we reached out to embrace.
In Ava Duvernay’s critically acclaimed film Middle of Nowhere, one of the final scenes shows the two main characters, Ruby and Derek, embracing after deciding their relationship would end due to the husband’s incarceration. Throughout the film, the characters spoke across the physical distances of a table and Plexiglas windows. They were together, but weren’t allowed to express that affection physically. When they finally held each other inside the prison, it was clear what the power of touch and affection could be.
Chaz hugged me tightly. It felt right. It was an affirmation that we had actually connected and that we were real people sharing a type of love – perhaps a Black love that was hard to foster on either side of those prison walls. His hug felt like he hadn’t been embraced in a while. I don’t know if that’s true, but I can say that I hadn’t been hugged like that in a while. It was one of the few times I had been hugged by a man with love. I needed that hug as much as Chaz did.
Kalief didn’t have a program like BTG. He didn’t have an effective space in that tortured place to work on loving himself and maintaining however slim a connection to his humanity. Kalief was 16 amongst men and boys who were probably hurting and going through their own shit as they awaited their fates. Kalief was 17 amongst men and boys who were probably hurting and going through their own shit as they awaited their fates. Kalief was 18 amongst men and boys who were probably hurting and going through their own shit as they awaited their fates. Kalief was 19 amongst men and boys who were probably hurting and going through their own shit as they awaited their fates. They beat and abused him.
My last contact with Chaz was writing a letter of support for his parole hearing almost 5 years ago. I’ve done a terrible job of staying in contact, but I’ll never forget that loving hug.
I was 21 when I received that hug. 2 years older than Kalief will ever be.
Kalief Browder was never charged and he never saw a judge. He experienced a form of racism that Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes in her book Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California as “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” In a way, he was already dead before taking his own physical life. Kalief experienced an exertion of racism at the hands of the legal system, but that is not the whole story. As my friend Marlon Peterson tells us, we’re all responsible for our “nation’s collective blood thirst for vengeance and punishment (which) is the real culprit.”
I’ll never forget the image in my mind of a desperate Kalief wishing to put an end to his grief by jumping feet first out of his apartment window. I’m sorry, Kalief, that we couldn’t get you out of there sooner. I’m sorry they stripped you of being a full person whom was loved. Please understand the violence you experienced had nothing to do with your worth.
It had everything to do with how this country erases those who are incarcerated and how many of us partake in that erasure, too. You were out of sight and out of too many of our minds, Kalief. I respect your decision and hope that wherever your spirit exists now it can finally have some healing and rest.
Kleaver Cruz is an Uptown, NY native who’s had a passion for words since 2nd grade. He is one half of the poetic duo, The Delta and his work has been featured on TravelNoire.com as well as African Voices Magazine. Cruz believes in the power of words because they allow him to write what did not exist when he needed it the most.