August 29, 2022September 2, 2022 6min readBy Usha Sookai
Prakash Churaman’s journey from the carceral system to freedom lasted seven years, five months and 28 days. On December 9, 2014, he was a 15-year-old boy who’d been through too much – abuse from a parent, school suspension, juvenile detention and living in a group home. He was arrested that night after his friend, Tarquane Clark, was killed in a robbery gone wrong. NYPD detectives interrogated Churaman and coerced him into a false confession.
NYPD officers brought him into custody because Clark’s grandmother thought she heard Churaman’s voice saying “mama, me not kill you,” and alleged that he pointed a gun at her head.
Though there was no physical evidence tying him to the crime scene, Churaman faced a state jail, Rikers Island and home confinement for six criminal charges.
He maintained innocence, refusing to take plea deals throughout his trials.
In prison, Churaman says, “I woke up everyday telling myself ‘I’m not gonna stay in here and just admit guilt to a crime that I know I did not commit, just to appease a system that relies on conviction rate.’”
Years later, under pressure from community and district leaders, the Queens County District Attorney, Melinda Katz, dropped all charges against Churaman on June 6, 2022.
Churaman, now 23, has told his story several times; detectives Daniel Gallagher and Barry Brown fed him false information to make him confess that he was present at the robbery and dug into his childhood traumas, using his mother’s presence to compel him to finish the session quickly. After three hours of interrogation, 15-year-old Churaman, who had a learning disability and mental health conditions, told Detectives what he thought they wanted to hear—he was at the scene though never had a weapon or any part in the murder.
Yet, under New York’s felony murder rules, if a person commits a felony and someone gets murdered on the scene, that alleged felon can be charged with murder as well, even if they had no part in it. So when he went to trial in 2018, the jury found him guilty of six charges — the highest, second-degree murder.
Thinking about his experience with the criminal justice system, he says, “I get really angry, really, pissed because I know that they’re doing this to hundreds to thousands of innocent black and brown teenagers just in this city and state.”
Churaman spent four years on Rikers Island, New York City’s largest, most horrendous jail while awaiting trial because presiding Judge Kenneth Holder denied him bail.
“All I can say about that place is that it’s a catastrophic disaster,” Churaman says, straining to find the words. “They got to shut that place down. It’s just pure wickedness and evilness that is on that island.”
New York City officials have long faced backlash over Rikers Island and the inhumane conditions inmates face. In 2021, 16 inmates in the Department of Corrections custody died, and in August 2022, the DOC reported the 12th death of an inmate for the year. In fact, as of August 2022, 85.57% of detainees in NYC jails are awaiting trial, not convicted of a crime.
Churaman met countless others who maintained innocence or were awaiting trial.
How this is possible?
In an interview, Churaman’s attorney, Jose Nieves, says, “in every interrogation that they [NYPD officers] do, there’s going to be a level of deception, manipulation and coercion,” he says.
Once a suspect has their Miranda Rights read to them, they have few protections if they waive their right to remain silent. If the waiver is found invalid, either from coercion or inability to waive, the courts can’t consider the statements. But statements made through coercion by officers are often not picked up by the courts.
“I would say in every case that a juvenile is in a situation of being interrogated by the police and they don’t have a lawyer present, it’s going to be highly likely that a certain level of manipulation and coercion and deception will be used,” says Nieves.
According to Nieves, introducing a learning disability or a mental health issue makes a person even more vulnerable.
Churaman’s mother was present during his interrogation but did not understand the Miranda Rights. Neither did Churaman, who only wanted to go home.
Every factor worked against Churaman — he was 15, had learning disabilities and psychiatric conditions, was gravely uninformed and previously incarcerated.
When Churaman was 14, NYPD officers arrested him for criminal possession of a weapon. They were answering a call from his mother, who worried that her son may have taken her cellphone when they found a gravity knife in his dresser.
“I already had a rough upbringing here in Queens,” he says, detailing previous experience in a group home and a desire to protect himself.
Despite being unaware of the consequences of owning a knife, he was sent to a secure juvenile detention center in Brooklyn.
Several months later, he was arrested again for the murder of Tarquane Clark.
He describes the aftermath as “waking up everyday in a living nightmare.”
Grieving for his friend was impossible when incarceration was tangled with it.
Churaman had few resources while incarcerated — he told the Asian American Writer’s Workshop about a close friend he made in prison, the Muslim inmates at the “masjid” and later, the law library.
Motivated by, in his words, “years of unjust incarceration,” he taught himself about case law, subpoena laws, and criminal procedure law. He began to understand his experiences he says, and how “cruel and immoral the system is,” says Churaman. To him the system is flawed. He describes it as conducting “wrongful prosecuting” and lying to people by “promising us these rights.” “They just manipulate and coerce and use deception in any way they can. That should not be the laws of the land; that should not be how society is regulated,” he says.
Now free and empowered by supporters through his grassroots organization the Free Prakash Alliance (now called Prakash Churaman Free), Churaman plans to sue the city for $25 million for false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, denial of a fair trial, false arrest and other related claims.
“It’s the only right thing left that they can do,” he says, “after all the torture that they forced me through.” But, knowing that the money would be coming from taxpayers, not those involved, leaves him wanting.
Despite his exoneration, because the Queens DA’s office dropped the charges on a technicality of an “infancy defense” motion filed by Churaman’s team, officials continue to defame the 23-year-old. In a statement released that day, the DA says, “the People continue to maintain defendant’s guilt of the very serious charges in the indictment.”
Though Churaman and his supporters celebrated the case closing, he sees the outcome as a loss for himself.
“I lost my childhood, I lost a large chunk of my young adult life,” he says, listing things he knows are irreplaceable. “No price tag, no dollar amount, will ever equate [to] what was stolen from me.”
But Churaman’s case extended beyond himself, through those who raised awareness and helped fight for his freedom.
“All the comrades, all the activists, advocates, people that are fighting for exactly what I was fighting for alongside me, that is what I consider a victory,” he says.
Churaman has been free for several weeks. As of June, the former Rikers inmate is left leaving picking up the pieces of years lost… Churaman’s circle now consists of those who fought with him and a few family members: his mother, his partner and his infant son.
When asked about his hopes for his son, he pauses to think. “I hope [my son experiences] the exact opposite of what I was forced to live.”
Churaman plans to teach his son about his constitutional rights, the knowledge that he didn’t have until it was too late. (He says that if he knew about the 5th Amendment at 14, he would’ve remained silent.)
“I hope, I pray that God just gives me the energy, the blessings to be there by his side, to watch over him, to protect him, to guide him, to educate him.”
“Take what you want//Take everything” reflects on a time with my partner and our cat, Layla. It’s a retelling of the chaotic night I adopted her. I didn’t know why Layla hid from me. When I chased her around, it scared her more. “Take what you want//Take everything” juxtaposes our first night, filled with misunderstanding, with the rest of the time we spent together. My fond memories call back to the loving moments Layla and I shared.
Such memories defined us; they reverberated in my partnership. I wonder if my partner, like Layla, only remembers her fear of me, over our shared moments of love. The title, a Kanye West lyric, is an acknowledgment that their happiness together–without me–destroyed my sense of self. When I see their photos, I wonder if I can see myself reflected in their eyes. I wonder if they still keep kind moments of our time together.
I remember when she would look at me from behind a laundry basket.
A small simple cat with green owl eyes. She was afraid of her new home and its owner. Shit, I remember the night I got her, she hid under my bed, in the middle just out of my reach for maybe 6 hours, watching me. She didn’t eat anything the entire day. When the night fell I was afraid she’d starve or come out and attack me. I was just scared. I didn’t have a childhood pet, I’m not white, I didn’t know what to do. I picked up the whole bed and yelled that she needed to move. I chased her into the closet with a vacuum cleaner. When she ran in, I called my lover and yelled to her that she wasn’t helping enough, she needed to be there to help me. That was our first day together, me and that cat. No one will ever have that memory but me and maybe her.
It was during Ramadan, my first year fasting.
Our problems had already begun by then. Enough so that I decided to fast and show retribution. I’d try to change into a more patient and understanding self. Like the Prophet (SAW) I guess. To become someone that my lover could feel safe around. Somehow, getting a cat felt like it fit into that picture. I’d be a cat dad, you know, gentle. We’d raise her. I’d fast and become New Again. Maybe I’d wrap an inked tasbih around myself and show I’m a man of God.
I don’t know how a cat remembers fear any more than I know how a lover does.
I know her body stored it. My cat’s must have stored it too. That first night, I wish I could tell her that I was afraid too. It doesn’t make sense that I was afraid really — I’m bigger, more threatening. We don’t speak the same language anyway, so how could I ever tell her? She learned to trust me though, in her own way. Her small bean paws would press on my chest in the mornings. She’d meow to berate me for locking her out some nights, or when I was away from home too long.
She lives with my lover now. They share photos with me, they’re happy together.
I saw my lover once, it was on 55th and 7th, Broadway shined blue performance lights over us. She wore a red sacral dress. She said her mental health has never been better. I think she was trying to tell me that she’s doing well, because she knows I care for her. I don’t think she was trying to say she’s happier without me. We don’t speak the same language. I actually think they are happier with just each other. And I loved them both, so it hurts. Sometimes, not all the time. And it doesn’t always hurt that bad. Other times it does get pretty bad, though. I probably owe it to myself to say that.
I look back at the photos, the ones of our life together, and the ones of their new life.
Two green owl eyes, and two brown moonlit eyes. I look for myself in them.
Passion is something many claim to have, but few truly possess. Whether it’s hobbies, professions or romances, it’s the secret ingredient we all crave but is quite difficult to come by. But on meeting Chef Devan Rajkumar — aka Chef Dev — it takes just a few moments to understand true passion. For the Indo Guyanese chef from Toronto, passion has always been food and its power to connect, nourish, excite and represent.
Whatever the outlet, Rajkumar feeds his mission to bean ambassador for modern, West and East Indian cuisine. I recently sat down with him to talk about this and the experience of bringing Indo Caribbean flavors to South Asia and beyond.
Feeding a passion for food
“The sights, the sounds, the aromatics. The excitement of the kitchen has just always appealed to me,” he began. “Food moves me in a certain way. I want to nurture and nourish. I’ve just always wanted to do for others.”
As he sat back in a ‘Guyana vs. the world’ tank top, Rajkumar’s energy was palpable.
“I’ve always lived and breathed food, all day, all night. Like I’m talking about food right now. I’m constantly talking about food.”
To Rajkumar, food is education — one of the best (and most enjoyable) ways to learn, teach and explore the world — and he credits his older brother Jai for inspiring this mindset. Jai was the first to introduce him to different cuisines, teach him to be curious about the world and show him how to challenge the norms of a “typical brown kid.”
Despite this encouragement, however, a culinary career wasn’t Rajkumar’s first instinct. The son of a businessman, he initially jumped around universities and career paths. He also struggled with substance abuse and grief after Jai’s passing. Through all the challenges, food remained a constant, and the sense of community it created was a powerful draw.
“At a very young age, I recognized how food made me feel if I was in a bad mood and how it made others feel,” he shared.
He’s always looked forward to sitting around a table with friends and family, enjoying a nice meal, and how everybody could share their stories or just forget their troubles.
“Food is a very powerful vehicle for transporting someone.”
In 2009, Rajkumar finally followed his passion and joined a culinary school. He realized he had a knack for creating this experience for others.
“I realized I had the power and the gift to nourish and nurture someone else in this way,” and it became irresistible.
A cook with no boundaries, Rajkumar didn’t want to limit the number of people he reached to just those in Canada.
For many, success in the culinary world is having a thriving restaurant, but after spending six months opening one with The Food Dudes in 2015, Rajkumar realized this route wasn’t for him.
“I wanted more culture,” he explained. “I wanted to learn and not so much get my ass kicked, but to be a sponge. I knew I needed to travel to broaden my horizons.”
So he did. Rajkumar spent months cooking in India, London, Peru and Dubai. He shared his experiences on social media and people back home took note.
“When I returned to Toronto,” he continued, “that trip had established me as a cook who had no boundaries. As someone who wasn’t afraid to explore and get out of their comfort zone.”
And get out of his comfort zone he did.
“From catering to a pop-up abroad to filming ‘Cityline’ and speaking engagements, every day is different,” he explained. “I’ve had my bouts with imposter syndrome, but ultimately, I’ve gotten to make more of an impact than just opening a restaurant.”
That impact has especially been prominent in South Asia.
Rajkumar embraces not only his Caribbean culture, but his South Asian roots as well.
The temple he grew up in was a blend of Guyanese and East Indians, so he knew foods from a typical Guyanese household like alu curry and saijan but also East Indian favorites like dhokla and malai kofta.
“Ultimately, we came from India,” he declared. “I embrace the culture and I am very comfortable leaning back and forth into it. It’s in me. It’s who I am.”
In fact, Rajkumar noted his career became much more defined and successful when he really began to identify as not just a chef, but as an Indo Guyanese Canadian chef.
Hearing this, it was no surprise that Guyana, India and Pakistan stand out as some of his favorite destinations.
“Guyana is hugely impactful for me,” he shared, having visited his parents’ homeland frequently. “As soon as that door opens [at the airport], you smell Guyana. You smell the sugarcane burning from rum factories. I have all these wonderful sights, sounds, smells and flavors from those trips.”
His sentiments for India are similar.
“Incredible India is incredible India,” he referred to the country’s tourism slogan. “Every 100-200 kilometers, the menus can change completely. I can live in India for the rest of my life and never see it all.”
Rajkumar’s first trip in 2020 was only nine days long, but its impact stayed with him.
He couldn’t have been more excited to return for a month, earlier this year, and host what his friends there dubbed the “Mad Love Pop-Up,” after one of his signature sayings.
He filled the menu for the 18-day event with global dishes like ceviche and scotch eggs but infused them with West and East Indian flavors like masala, jerk and cassareep — a rich extract of the bitter cassava native to Guyana. Before he left, he even prepared Guyana’s national dish of pepper pot, a hearty meat stew, for the staff meal.
“My whole thought process was ‘let me give these people — my family there — an experience they’ve never had before,” he detailed. “Any time I give someone pepper pot or cassareep, they’re just so shocked. It’s so unique.”
Rajkumar is always excited to share the flavors and culture of Guyana with new people, but with his roots in South Asia, bringing them to Pakistan was that much more profound.
“In India, maybe it’s different, but in Lahore, most people don’t know about Guyana or where it is. That’s another reason why I did this. That’s why I do all the things I do. That’s why I’m wearing this tank top — to raise awareness about my culture and how beautiful it is,” he said.
Time in South Asia has also helped Rajkumar gain a deeper appreciation for the origins of many Indo Caribbean dishes and reinforced his love for them.
“Guyanese cuisine doesn’t just have Indian influence, but so many dishes in some way, shape, or form come from there. Like when I’m eating sada roti, I can tie it back to which type of flatbread it came from in India. I feel like a better-equipped chef at the end of the day. I’m more connected to my Guyanese roots and to the culture overall.”
Rajkumar wants to foster a deeper understanding and relationship between both heritages. He wants his food to build connections, not disparity.
Bringing the world back home
Rajkumar has visited over 20 countries, but Pakistan remains one place he’ll cherish his entire life. He is grateful not only for the opportunities he’s had there, but also for the chance to offer a fresh, alternative view of the country from what is often shown by the media.
“When people saw me posting content from Lahore, they were like, ‘Oh my God, this is Pakistan?’ This is not what we expected. This is not what we thought we’d see.’ They were shocked at how beautiful, kind, and welcoming everyone was.”
Reactions like these are Rajkumar’s ultimate goal.
A cookbook is due next year. He has aspirations of launching merchandise and cookware, traveling to South East Asia, and continuing his pop-ups, but ultimately, he concludes,
“I just want to stand for something. I want to continue to learn, remain humble, represent my Western and Eastern cultures and spread mad love. I want to be an ambassador to that world and be someone who’s dedicated to his craft, bettering himself and those around him.”
“I just want to continue to grow as a person,” he added with sincerity as he touched on his sobriety and what it’s taught him about achieving your goals.
“That might sound cliche, but it’s new to me. I’ve spent the last two years learning about myself and being vulnerable about how I feel, my healing journey and what I’m going through. If I excel and continue to invest time and discipline in that arena, everything else around me will flourish. I believe that goes for anyone.”
Rajkumar is going far literally and figuratively, but no matter where he lands, you can be sure he’ll bring something back for his supporters, whether it be a new view of the world or a concoction like a ceviche pani puri on one of his menus.
“That’s my travels to India, Pakistan and Peru all in one bite!” he exclaimed.
Chef Dev’s journey has not always been an easy one, but it’s a powerful example of the success one can taste with hard work, embracing authenticity and following true passion.
“Confessions to a Moonless Sky” is a meditation on the new moon and guilt. I wrote it when I was living in Dallas and was driving back from a dusk prayer. The new moon terrified me on that drive. I was diseased by the knowledge that my partner, at the time, had seen the worst parts of me. There’s immense shame in this piece—it seized my self-image. If the moon could become brand new, then I could start over.
I often ponder on the moon’s reflective nature and pairs of eyes. I’m hyper-fixated on how I am seen by others. Unfortunately, the brilliance of seeing your reflection in another person leads to negativity. After all, those who are too keen on their own reflection are the same people who suffer from it. It is possible to use shame to fuel one’s retribution and personal growth, without becoming consumed by it.
We can look to Shah Rukh Khan succumbing to alcoholism in his own sorrow and then later imbibing his sadness in Chandramukhi. “Confessions to a Moonless Sky” is a lesson for us: Don’t be Shah Rukh Khan in Devdas, instead embody pre-incarnation Shah Rukh Khan in Om Shanti Om!
Sometimes when the moon abandons the sky, I wonder if I drove her away.
If she comes back, will she be the same? How I wish she would come back new, truly new! That way she’d have no memory of the sin I’ve confessed to her. You noxious insect. Sin-loving, ego-imbibing pest. You are no monster, for at least a monster has ideology, it sins with purpose. You sin just to chase ignominy.
But the moon won’t say that, she never does. She’ll just leave the sky and return days later, slowly. And I’ll wonder if she’s new, perhaps she won’t remember my past confessions. What does it matter? Were the moon replaced with one from a different god, I’d drive her away, too.