When Kalief Browder was 16, he was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack. He spent three years at New York City’s notorious Rikers Island jail—two of them in solitary confinement—while awaiting a trial that would never be. Charges were dropped when prosecutors lost track of the witness.

In the few years since his release, Browder— physically and mentally broken—tried to reclaim his life, according to The New York Times. But he could not. Hope had been lost along with his old self in that solitary cell on Rikers Island. Reading reports of his suicide last month, I wept over his lost life, his lost opportunities, and a system that had forgotten him.

Not that long ago, I supported this institutional forgetting as a form of punishment. For much of my life—from the moment in high school when I watched death penalty advocates cheer the death of serial killer Ted Bundy —I claimed my anti-death-penalty stance and became sold on “lock ’em up and throw away the key” prison sentences, taking criminals away from society long enough to forget about them.

Until I started rethinking that last part. Until a few months ago, when I passed through the gates of Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana. Until I participated in retreat for inmate pastors at the largest maximum-security prison in the country. Until I slept in a cabin on prison grounds. Until I walked by cells, peeked into prison classrooms, talked gardening with a man tending the plot outside his barracks. Until I ate and sang and prayed and chatted and danced and laughed with men convicted of crimes far worse than stealing backpacks.

The whole experience was enough change a woman’s mind about forgetting ...

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