The Prison of the Mind [On Kalief Browder]

Jose Vilson Jose

“You see, mama? This is why, sometimes, I’d rather just be in jail. It’s much easier than this. This is too much.”

Richard had just passed away, a victim of his own addiction. The syringe, found seven stories under his lifeless carcass a few hours afterward, had injected a high-inducing substance mixed with an adulterated chemical that slowly switched his nervous system off. His brother was either speaking jibberish or speaking from his heart depending on the listener’s perspective. I’ve heard it too many times, but this time was particularly poignant.

Richard’s brother preferred the normalcy of the gated cells to the uncertainty of what the rest of us consider real life.

Prior to his passing, I hadn’t seen him in almost a decade. It had been so long that I forgot what he actually went to jail for. We lived a few buildings apart, my building facing the ave and his building facing the river. As youth, I remember him as a young man with ambitions with enough charisma to make us believe he could do anything he put his mind to. As time passed, though, this ambition had him bobbing and weaving the very streets I faced. He landed in jail for a crime we weren’t told about, and he wouldn’t tell us after he got out. Their humanity is erased, and criminality subverts them as human beings.

When they pass, they’re not seen as victims even as the current they’re swimming against needs more than wooden oars and life jackets.

So when I heard of Kalief Browder’s passing, I thought back to my cousins who’d ever done a stint in jail, and the offerings they needed to make to the jail gods to make it to their release date. The justice system doesn’t just fail our system from the point of entry into steel-gated rooms. It starts from birth, and having to swim twice or thrice as hard to meet what the rest of the country considers “normal.”

This isn’t just an urban affliction either. It’s the living environments our country continues to allow, and, in many ways, propogated. Our environments are not just on purpose.

Educators have a large task ahead of us, particularly with a social justice conscience. Too many folks across different racial spectra like to say, “Teachers think because kids are poor and / or are of color, they can’t learn.” I can’t contradict that because we do have people who don’t want kids to learn anything above multiplication. At the same time, socially just education requires us to do everything we can because we know life isn’t fair. We lift because we see the Kalief Browders in our classrooms, so full of life, and yet facing immeasurable odds. We can only hope that we’ve done everything we can to help them reach their potential even as the rest of society does not believe in them.

Kalief Browder was, by many measures, college and career ready, too. Yet, that experience in jail, the incongruous waiting to be unburdened for a crime he never committed, the pseudo-apologies upon release works exactly as it’s supposed to. It’s meant to disorient, dehumanize, and erase.

I wish to remember Kalief the way I remember all my cousins who’d been to jail as people who went through jail and people still. It leaves me wondering if remembering their full humanities might have kept them here.

photo c/o