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We Talked to the Journalist Who Made the Horror of Rikers Island Impossible to Ignore

Jennifer Gonnerman's story about three years in hell for teenager Kalief Browder might actually be changing how criminal justice works in New York City.

by Matt Taylor
May 12 2015, 3:00pm

By now you've probably heard something about how Rikers Island, the massive jail complex in New York City, is a hellhole. But the wider world might never have paid much attention to the place were it not for a handful of journalists determined to thrust its horrors in front of our faces. Along with a massive New York Times investigative series, the story that probably had the greatest impact—forcing Mayor Bill de Blasio to name-check its protagonist in a recent policy initiative—was Jennifer Gonnerman's "Before the Law" for the New Yorker, a sprawling investigation into the plight of then-16-year-old Kalief Browder. The teenager spent three years rotting away in Rikers without even getting a trial before prosecutors dropped the weak case against him—he was accused of stealing a backpack—and let him go.

Gonnerman's fantastic story is the first magazine piece ever to be a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and in addition to elevating the author to new heights career-wise, it seems to be making a difference in the real world, too. I called up Gonnerman to figure out what makes some crime journalism so important that the powers that be can't get away with ignoring it.

VICE: Why do you think your Rikers Island story struck such a chord? Was it partly a question of the climate in which you did your reporting—the national conversation about police killings of black men and the Black Lives Matter movement?
Jennifer Gonnerman: The piece came out in early October, which preceded some of the largest protests, but I think many factors came into play. Partly it was timeliness—the New York Times has been pounding away at Rikers Island all year. So that woke people up to some of the injustices going on there. Last August, the US Attorney had released a devastating report about the conditions in the adolescent jails on Rikers. So that also fed interest.

Often when people talk about the backlog and the court system, they talk about delays in case processing. There may be no more dull phrase than that.

But I also think a story about a teenage kid who spends three years waiting for a trial that never happens—just the facts of the story themselves are pretty stunning, I think. It's pretty surprising that that sort of thing still goes on in this day and age. Especially, you know, Rikers Island is so close to the media capital, right—just between Queens and the Bronx. So for those kinds of injustices to be going on right in New York City was in some ways surprising to readers.

So the problems at Rikers were already a major story, but your piece offered this incredibly gut-wrenching, personal window into that world, and kind of crystallized what people were already vaguely aware of, and made it harder to ignore?
I think some of the most difficult facts that come out of media and newspapers are most easily digested as a single narrative about a single person, and that worked to the story's advantage. And also, the story really looks at the massive dysfunction in two different systems—both the city's jail system, Rikers Island, and also the court system, particularly in the Bronx. So it was a chance to look at the interplay between two highly dysfunctional bureaucracies in a way that is very difficult for newspapers to pull off just because they don't have the space.

What's your sense of how different, if at all, Rikers Island is from when your subject, Browder, left there in 2013? There's been all this media attention, but how much has changed?
I don't know for certain because I haven't done on-the-ground reporting on this in the last few months, but Mayor de Blasio has focused a lot of attention on Rikers, which is to his credit since it had been terribly ignored by prior administrations. They've got plenty of smart people working on it, but whether that has actually had a trickle effect where peoples' day-to-day existences on the Island are any different, I'm not convinced that's happened yet. And it's obviously an incredibly difficult thing to pull off.

Do you think reforms—like the new rule that possession of small amounts of marijuana results in a summons and not arrest—will actually reduce the impact of the criminal justice system on people of color? Or will they just clog the courts with more dubious cases, as some police reformers have alleged?
Several years back when the stop-and-frisk trial was happening in federal court in downtown Manhattan, I covered it and wrote about it, and focused on a police officer in the Bronx who testified against the NYPD. And he always told me, "You know, the biggest problem is actually not stop-and-frisk, it's summonses." It's the way the kind of unofficial NYPD quota system, at that time, was forcing him and his colleagues to hand out a certain number of summonses. And that was, in his view, the larger injustice, and I thought it was only a matter of time until the public came around to seeing things, perhaps, that same way. And so now we're starting to focus more city attention on that.

The mayor released a statement to you, mentioning Browder, when he announced changes in how the city's court system operates (in hopes of speeding it up). Is it fair to say it's a direct result of your reporting? What's the relationship like between journalism and reality here?
Did Kalief Browder's story make that happen? I think that at any given time, the folks in City Hall have a long list of criminal justice reforms they are supposed to be working on, want to work on, problems they need to fix, and the story in the New Yorker certainly helped push court reform to the top of their concerns and priorities.

I think the impact of taking so many young men and imprisoning them has ripple effects for families, parents, children, entire communities.

Often when people talk about the backlog and the court system, they talk about delays in case processing. There may be no more dull phrase than that. I think for people who actually genuinely wanted to work on that issue, this story gave them a way to mobilize other folks and focus their attention on it in a way they might not have before. If it was about, "Hey, we need to work on case processing delays," it's hard to get people excited about that, compared with telling them the story of a young man who sat around for three years waiting for his case to go through the system and losing three years of his adolescence.

Some of the people you spoke to in that follow-up piece were skeptical of how significant these reforms will prove to be. Is this new policy proportional to the problem?
It's too early to say if it will have any lasting change. There certainly are some very smart, determined folks that are dedicated to these issues, but these issues are many years in the making—both Rikers and the court system—and very difficult to resolve. So whether they're going to be able to actually make lasting changes, I have no idea. Part of the challenge is you have all these different players in the court system who are essentially at odds with each other: the prosecutors, public defenders—that's the definition of the way the adversarial process works. And yet to make this work you have to get everybody on the same page to move cases through the system faster, and that's the real challenge.

Looking back at the last eight months, it's obviously been a busy stretch for journalism centered around prisons, jails, police brutality, and cop protests. How do you think a moment like this happens?
I think it's the beginning of a sustained dialogue. Even Hillary Clinton had that long policy speech about the problems of mass incarceration. But I think a huge factor is all these cell-phone videos that you're seeing. It's no longer one police officer's word against a civilian's word. The Eric Garner video, for example. Cell phone videos have completely changed the tenor around these conversations, and given credibility to people who might in the past not even have been heard by the mainstream media, even if they've been saying the same thing for years.

Related: Watch our former prison correspondent Bert Burykill try to navigate urine tests and other legal snags after his release.

Does the gendered nature of the problem—so many of the characters or victims are men, and specifically young men of color—somehow shape how you approach a story, or dictate the direction that one goes with a story like this?
I've been covering the criminal justice system for many years and actually wrote a book about a woman who was in prison for 16 years. So I feel like I've tried to cover the criminal justice system from many different angles and focus on many different kinds of peoples' experiences. But men obviously are disproportionately represented behind bars—that's a fact. I think the impact of taking so many young men and imprisoning them has ripple effects for families, parents, children, entire communities.

And so that's another way I've tried over the years to cover the criminal justice system, to focus not only on the single person who's locked up but also on many unintended consequences of our policies.

Finally, is having an impact your endgame, or if not, what is your chief goal when writing a story?
I personally want to write a piece that people are going to read, first and foremost. I mean, if I were a journalist who spends too much time worrying about what the final outcome might be—I don't really think it's our job to be lobbying for specific policy changes. More the point, I think, is to just try to do the best job possible to report a story and get a full understanding of the problems going on and then relay them to a reader in a way they can understand. And then whatever happens from then, if somebody reads it and wants to make a change, that's sort of the politicians' or policymakers' job. I think any journalist who gets too much caught up in that, it doesn't really make for great journalism.

But first and foremost I'm just hoping to write a story that people are actually going to read to the end.

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