- Here is the story of an ill-fated journey from the fields of Guyana to the notorious iron bars of Rikers Island to courthouse steps in Queens where a young man fights for his life.
In Recife, readers were hard to find. It was 1960 and the northeastern coastal city in Brazil had 80,000 children ranging from 7 to 14 years old who did not attend school. Adult illiteracy was at 60 to 70 percent. These were mostly fishermen and peasants, who the government had tried over and over again to educate, to no avail. In stepped Paulo Freire, a 39 year-old educator who grew up in Recife. He’d learned a lesson early in his career: people, especially oppressed people, don’t learn to read by imposition. He believed that before we read a single word, we are already readers. We are aware of our own reality; we are readers of our world. Freire asked an artist friend to draw 10 pictures of nature, people, animals, all things that would be familiar to his students. Then, for hours, the group discussed what they saw in the pictures. The expertise of the people emerged on topics relevant to them like work, family, power, nature, and technology. Only after discussing the pictures, one at a time, would Freire bring in words. It worked. In just 30 t0 40 hours, people were learning to read. The local university adopted his approach until a new government took power in 1964. The masses were becoming too well-educated, the Party said. They labeled Freire a radical, arrested him, then forced him into exile — all over a simple practice: teaching people to read their world and read the word.
I came across Paulo Freire’s work in a graduate school program for urban teaching. I arrived full of myself, a privileged Indian-American attending an ivory tower institution with a legacy of engineering inequality within Black and Brown communities around it. When I went into those communities to teach, I learned to be more self-aware. I had to avoid the savior complex that doomed so many educators from the moment they walked into urban classrooms. Freire helped me. I recognized the power of making my lessons relevant to students. But it was only recently, during a visit to Queens, New York that I grasped something deeper about his message. Reading can be liberating not only because it allows us to analyze our reality; it also enables us to take action to transform our situation.
Take the story of Prakash Churaman, the son of Indo-Caribbean immigrants. For him, reading has been life-changing, but not in the way you might think. At a time when kids his age were assigned novels in their English classes, Prakash was sitting behind bars at Rikers Island correctional facility in New York City. He’s 21 years old now, at home in Queens with an ankle bracelet on as he awaits a new trial for a felony murder charge that imprisoned him for over 6 years. Recently, the Queens District Attorney’s office offered him a deal. Plead guilty to a lesser charge of assault and walk free for good this summer. Prakash said no. He’d studied his case, spending countless hours at the law library in prison. One book in particular strengthened his resolve to keep fighting: “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson.
“He started from the bottom,” Prakash told me on a recent phone call, referring to the author. “From Alabama [as] a public defender with a large caseload to now being a founder of an organization that is helping wrongly incarcerated individuals and proving their innocence.” Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, has inspired millions with his TED talk and his non-fiction bestseller that was made into a 2019 film starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx. For Prakash, however, it was the work that caught his eye. He says, “I was doing a lot of legal research. Reading about laws, case laws. So I related to [him] in a sense.” Someone had lent Prakash the book, but he liked it so much that he asked his friends on the outside to send him a copy. He read it multiple times and found many connections: to his life, to Stevenson, and to the defendants the author introduces.
In the harrowing early pages of the 8th chapter, “All God’s Children,” Stevenson shares the stories of three children whose lives have been permanently altered by the criminal justice system. There’s Trina Garnett from Chester, Pennsylvania. She was playing with matches at a friend’s house. A flame grew into a fire that took the house down and suffocated two boys sleeping in their rooms. Trina was sentenced to life in prison. She was 14. There’s Antonio Nunez from Los Angeles, California. He was pressured by two older boys into a kidnapping extortion scheme that devolved into a shoot-out with an unmarked police van. No one suffered any injuries, but he was charged with aggravated kidnapping and attempted murder of a police officer. Antonio was condemned to die in prison. He was 14. There’s Ian Manuel from Tampa, Florida. He shot a woman through the cheek during a botched robbery. He was charged with armed robbery and attempted homicide, then sent to an adult prison where the staff had to cut 6 inches from their smallest pants for him. He was 13. Concerned about the recent assaults against juveniles, the staff kept him away from adults. He ended up spending 18 years uninterrupted in solitary confinement.
“I do recall reading that chapter,” Prakash says. He speaks with a quiet confidence that seems tenuous. His words are slow but emphatic. “Nine times out of ten, those individuals that are sentenced to life as juveniles are innocent. They just don’t have the resources, the support, and most importantly, the funds.” The statistic he provides is impossible to verify, but his point is well-taken. The criminal justice system can be sorted into haves and have-nots. The children who receive life sentences are the latter. They lack capital — economic but also social — to prove their innocence or, if guilty, to earn themselves a second chance in life.
Prakash’s life first took a big turn when he left Guyana at the age of 7 to settle in Florida. He had grown up in a rural part of his native country full of trees, bushes, and animals. His father’s father owned a store on the bottom floor of their house where villagers would come to buy what they needed. He played cricket with friends in the neighborhood and quickly took an interest in baseball when his family moved to Florida. He joined a Little League team and made new friends. But the situation at home made it hard to focus. His father abused his mother, Nandani, and he felt he had little recourse for the violence he and his sister witnessed.
It boiled over one day and his mother decided to leave Florida for New York. “I wanted to go with her,” Prakash says, but he didn’t get a chance to. He adds, “my mom just had to get out of that environment.” In Nandani’s absence, the violence didn’t let up. Prakash endured it, but grew less and less tolerant until finally, in 2012, he reported his father to the authorities. The state transferred him into his mother’s care.
When he got to Queens, Prakash was disappointed. He found a mirror image of his father in his mother’s new boyfriend. Now in his early teens, Prakash itched for independence. He couldn’t bear to relive what he’d left behind in Florida, so he took off. He ran away from home at age 14 and, when recovered, was deposited in a juvenile facility in the Bronx. Authorities sent him back home on good behavior after 7 months.
He returned to his mother’s care in November 2014. Two weeks later, in the early hours of the day, NYPD officers burst into his bedroom. They snatched him up and drove him around for hours. Eventually, they took him into an interrogation room mere miles from his house. Disoriented, Prakash met with a barrage of questions from two detectives, one White and one Black. The White detective came off as pleasant. The Black detective did not. He demanded answers from Prakash: why did you kill your friend?
Four days prior, three men wearing masks entered the home of 21 year-old Taquane Clark in Jamaica, Queens. An attempted robbery took a bad turn and shots were fired. Clark was found dead. His uncle was wounded. Clark’s grandmother, who was held hostage, tipped police off to a potential lead. Supposedly, one man’s voice sounded like someone she recognized. This person was a friend of Clark’s, someone who had visited the apartment before. It was Prakash Churaman, she alleged.
Nandani arrived at the interrogation room. Believing the detectives would help her son if he shared what he knew, she urged him to speak to them. “Here in Queens, a lot of Guyanese people don’t really understand how law enforcement operates,” Prakash says. His mother, like so many others in the community, trusted the police. “There’s not a lot of information being provided to our people to educate them and help them gain the knowledge that they need if that time comes that they do ever have any interaction with law enforcement,” adds Prakash. When detectives were questioning Prakash, for example, there wasn’t a lawyer present. Since he was a juvenile, only his mother could have given approval to detectives to proceed without counsel.
This interrogation is, in many ways, what Prakash’s case hangs on. He won’t comment on the specifics of what he endured in that room since the case is still open and ongoing. But we know, from the record, that in Prakash’s first trial back in 2018, Judge Kenneth Holder refused to allow his lawyers to present an expert witness on the subject of juvenile false confessions. With no physical evidence, the confession stood in as a key element for the prosecution. The jury found Prakash guilty and Judge Holder sentenced him to nine years to life in prison.
Crucially, the charge was felony murder, which allows a defendant to be charged with second-degree murder for a killing that occurs during a felony — armed robbery for example — even if the defendant is not the killer. Both Illinois and California have amended the statute to tamp down on prosecutorial abuses, “unchecked discretion to charge murder in any situation where a felony was committed and a death occurred,” according to The Appeal. In 2018, the same year that Prakash was convicted, DNA evidence from the crime scene linked a 28-year old man named Elijah Gough to the murder of Taquane Clark. He was sentenced to 65 years to life in prison.
A year and a half after his conviction, Prakash won a reversal in a state appellate court, on the basis of the argument that the jury should have heard expert testimony about false confessions. Yet he remained in jail, awaiting a new trial in front of the same judge. It wasn’t until January 2021 that Prakash was released on bail. Last month, on May 3rd, a rally was held outside the Queens courthouse to demand that District Attorney Melinda Katz drop all charges against Prakash.
In an effort to garner support from the Indo-Caribbean and South Asian communities in New York, the Queens-based rapper Anik Khan held an Instagram Live conversation with Prakash the night before. In the exchange, Prakash recounted his story, but Anik made space for him to talk about his life outside the case. He mentioned his favorite book, “Just Mercy”; his favorite musical artist, Vybz Kartel; and his favorite food, curry chicken. He told Anik he had a girlfriend, but danced around the details. Anik teased him about his haircut, telling him he looked like a Guyanese car salesman, before advising him to grow it out. “I see a lot of myself in him,” Anik later told me, “similar experiences in a much lighter way, but just [being] poor Brown kids and the way we grew up and what happens in this borough when you grow up that way.”
Around 75 people attended the rally, including Anik Khan. He arrived as a speaker was addressing the crowd from the second set of courthouse steps and gave Prakash a big hug. Most of the speakers, about a dozen in total, were Black; none spoke directly to South Asian or Indo-Caribbean communities. When I met with Anik after the rally, I asked if he felt there was enough support from the communities he was speaking to. “It’s not about enough, it’s just about showing up and I think who was supposed to show up definitely showed up,” he said, adding “there’s this perception with South Asians that all cops are good, everybody in jail is bad and that’s just simply not the case. And there’s a lot of education that needs to be done there, especially with the immigrants that moved in the nineties that might not be familiar with most things. So it’s just about continuing our conversation really and having it, you know?”
Anik says he felt an immediate connection to Prakash because he went through the system himself in his early teens. “I’ve been on probation. I don’t talk about it because it wasn’t a long sentence, but I understand what it means to go from the holding cell to the five day cell to general population. I probably could have avoided it, but I didn’t have the money and I didn’t have the resources and the guidance to understand. So [Prakash’s story] hit home and I wanted to be here and support him.” Anik’s use of his platform — he has 36k followers on Instagram — led to increased attention on Prakash’s story and donations to support his fight for justice. It is far from over, however.
“Honestly right now I’m not reading much,” Prakash told me, “I’m focused on my case.” On July 11th, he will stand before Judge Kenneth Holder again. He has taken a big risk, going against the advice of his attorneys, by refusing a plea deal and believing he will be exonerated. But he isn’t placing faith in Judge Holder’s hands alone. “I am trying to apply enough pressure on Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz to permanently drop all charges against me. That will save a lot of taxpayers dollars and it would prevent me and the victim’s family from reliving a lot of trauma,” he says.
He points to places people can go today to support him. “My Instagram is @freeprakashalliance, my Facebook is Prakash Churaman, and my Twitter is @freedom4prakash,” he says, “I just encourage everyone to support me in any way possible. And most importantly, continue believing in me.”
Prakash has come a long way. At the time of his arrest in 2014, a forensic scientist added a note to his case file, labeling him “mildly retarded.” I asked Prakash how he thinks about that, whether it upsets him. He told me, “at that particular time, I was really going through a lot mentally. I wasn’t going to school. My mother had an abusive boyfriend. I was diagnosed with a few mental health disorders. So I had a lot going on, man.” He doesn’t object to the assessment the forensic scientist made, but he didn’t let it deter him. He went to school in jail and earned his high school equivalency diploma in 2017. “I just used that [diagnosis as ‘mildly retarded’] as a tool to keep me motivated and to keep learning as much as I can given, you know, my comprehension level. I kept pushing. I’m here now and it’s like my knowledge, my wisdom, is at a level that I would’ve never expected,” he says.
Kidnapped by System
Books don’t pry open bars, however. In a New York Times article from March 2021, Prakash commented on the conditions inside Rikers Island during the COVID-19 pandemic and added that he believes he has PTSD from all that he has witnessed. “[I was] kidnapped at age of 15 by the system and forced to remain in an environment that left me no choice but to adapt,” he told me. He has witnessed stabbings and lived in close quarters with the fear of infection, yet his story is a far cry from popular narratives like the one presented in “The Night Of.” In the 2016 HBO mini-series, a clean-cut Pakistani-American kid from Queens gets chewed up and spit out by the system. The main character, Naz, played by Academy Award nominee Riz Ahmed, is arrested after being discovered near the scene of a murder with the murder weapon in his jacket. As the show progresses, Naz develops a drug habit and his family falls into disrepair. He loses himself and his connection to his community. “I don’t have HBO so I wouldn’t know,” Prakash says. When I describe the premise, he responds to one part in particular; not the connection to Queens or to being Brown but to the fictional Naz, who he sympathizes with: “In the law it states that a person arrested is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. That is a complete lie. And I’ll tell you from firsthand experience.”
That life experience has made Prakash into the man he is today. He’s a tireless advocate for justice who wishes to move past the ordeal that has snatched up over six years of his life. He hopes to become a paralegal one day, parlaying the knowledge he has gained by becoming literate and fighting to free himself. As Paulo Freire wrote in his widely admired book, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” “Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift. It must be pursued constantly and responsibly. Freedom is not an ideal located outside of man; nor is it an idea which becomes myth. It is rather the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion.” By this definition, there’s a long road ahead for Prakash. But he’s on his way.
Akash Pandey is a 31- year-old former educator who now works for an ed-tech company that helps students become better writers. He hosts the podcast South Asians Love Rap and writes online from time to time.