Christopher Mathias | June 8, 2015
Kalief Browder, a young man from New York City who had gained national renown in recent years as a symbol of America’s broken criminal justice system, took his own life this weekend, according to a report from The New Yorker. He was 22.
Browder was just 16 years old in 2010 when he was sent to New York’s notorious Rikers Island jail on a robbery charge that would ultimately be dismissed. He ended up spending three years at the facility, despite not having been convicted of a crime. When he wasn’t in solitary confinement — where he spent an accumulated two years — he faced unspeakable violence at the hands of guards and fellow inmates.
His long, tortuous ordeal — as documented last year in a widely read New Yorker article by Jennifer Gonnerman — came to a tragic end Saturday. Gonnerman reported that Browder hanged himself with an air conditioning cord at his family’s home in the Bronx, New York. She told The Huffington Post Monday that Browder’s family was in a “state of shock.”
“They were angry and confused about why Kalief was gone,” she said.
Gonnerman, who’d spent a great deal of time with Browder, remembered him as an “intelligent, perceptive young man who was trying to do the right thing. All he wanted to do was have a normal life… but he never really got that chance.”
What happened to Browder and his family, said Gonnerman, is an “American tragedy almost beyond words.”
In a New Yorker piece announcing Browder’s death, Gonnerman noted that Browder’s lawyer, Paul Prestia, had told Browder’s family that “this case is bigger than Michael Brown” — a reference to the unarmed black teen fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer. Brown’s death set off massive protests across the country.
“When you go over the three years that [Browder] spent [in jail] and all the horrific details he endured, it’s unbelievable that this could happen to a teen-ager in New York City,” Prestia said hours after Browder’s death, according to The New Yorker. “He didn’t get tortured in some prison camp in another country. It was right here!”
When reached for comment Monday, the New York City Department of Correction said it would release a statement on Browder’s death later that day.
In a 2013 interview with The Huffington Post, Browder recalled how he’d once ripped the sheets off the bed in his jail cell and fashioned them into a noose. Just as he was about to hang himself, he said, guards stormed into the cell, tackled him to the bed and punched him repeatedly.
As punishment for the suicide attempt, Browder said guards “starved” him for up to four meals at a time. Browder would try another four or five times to take his own life during his stay at Rikers.
“Prior to going to jail, I never had any mental illnesses,” Browder told HLN in 2013. “I never tried to hurt myself, I never tried to kill myself, I never had any thoughts like that. I had stressful times prior to going to jail, but not like during jail. That was the worst experience that I ever went through in my whole life.”
A horrifying report from the U.S. Department of Justice last year described the “rampant use of unnecessary and excessive force” by guards against teenage inmates on Rikers. The report also detailed how the adolescent inmate facility, where Browder was kept, was “more inspired” by the William Golding novel Lord of the Flies than by “any legitimate philosophy of humane detention.”
Surveillance footage obtained by Gonnerman earlier this year shows Browder being beaten by a guard and assaulted by a large group of inmates.
Browder always maintained his innocence in the robbery accusation. In 2013, he was offered a deal to plead guilty and be sentenced to time served. If he took his chances at trial, he could face up to 15 years in prison. But Browder didn’t balk. He refused to plead guilty, and a few months later, the charges against him were dropped. He went home.
But after three years of hell on Rikers, Browder struggled to adjust to the outside world. According to Gonnerman, he experienced deep bouts of depression, became increasingly paranoid and made attempts to take his life. He spent time in a psychiatric hospital in Harlem.
Along the way, he also became the face of reform for Rikers Island.
In April, in a statement provided to The New Yorker, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said that Browder’s “tragic story put a human face on Rikers Island’s culture of delay — a culture with profound human and fiscal costs for defendants and our city.”
Since Browder’s release from jail, de Blasio and Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte have introduced a series of major reforms at Rikers. Perhaps most significantly, the pair have ended the practice of putting 16- and 17-year-olds into solitary confinement.
According to data released by the mayor’s office earlier this year, of the 10,000 inmates jailed at Rikers, about 1,500 have been there for at least a year without being convicted of a crime. As in Browder’s case, these lengthy pretrial stays are often the result of unaffordable bail, long court backlogs, bad legal representation or a combination thereof. Sometimes, inmates experience protracted pretrial detainment as part of an intentional strategy by their attorneys.
De Blasio said these 1,500 inmates were all scheduled to have a court date last month, with the aim of resolving their cases by the end of the year.
But for many, these reforms are too little, too late.
The activist Glenn Martin spent six years in prison before founding Just Leadership USA, an organization that aims to reduce America’s prison population by half. Martin is now president of the organization.
In a statement to HuffPost Monday, Martin called for the “removal of all youth from Rikers Island,” a move he said would be a “conservative step in the right direction.”
“There is no meaningful reform that involves young people remaining incarcerated on Rikers Island,” he said. “Observers have long known that New York’s premier institution of punishment churns out human carnage on a much grander scale than public safety or rehabilitation.”
“Ultimately, we are all collectively responsible for the death of Kalief, since our insidious criminal justice system exists in our name,” Martin continued. “The heartbreaking loss of Kalief reminds us that criminal justice reform isn’t merely an academic exercise being negotiated in our nation’s power centers — the lives of our children are literally on the line.”
Matt Curtis, policy director at the group Voices of Community Activists & Leaders New York, which opposes mass incarceration, said in a statement Monday that Browder’s death is “a tragedy that should have never happened, especially in a city that boasts its commitment to progressive values.”
“The violence and injustice Kalief endured at the hands of the criminal justice system is inexcusable, and we should be ashamed of the rampant and unchecked violence in our jails and prisons,” said Curtis. “The system we have is designed to dehumanize people of color, people suffering from mental illness, innocent people like Kalief Browder.”