Kalief Browder, the young man who was held for years in New York’s Rikers Island prison as a teen without trial or conviction, killed himself on Saturday.
Browder ended up in one of America’s most corrupt and violent prisons after being accused – at age 16 – of stealing a backpack on May 15, 2010.
Because his family was unable to raise his $10,000 bail and because of repeated court delays and an overwhelmed system, Browder was forced to endure three years of hell – including beatings and deprivation of food – at Rikers Island waiting for a trial that never happened. He refused to accept several plea deals on principle, maintaining his innocence throughout his entire ordeal.
Browder spent more than 1,000 days in prison. Two years of that was spent in solitary confinement. He tried to end it all at least six times while at Rikers. In in February 2012, he made two attempts: he tried to hang himself from the light fixture in his cell using a noose he made with torn bed-sheets, and then tried to slit his wrists with a piece of plastic.
New York prosecutors finally dropped the charges against him on May 29, 2013 – which was his thirty-first court date.
But Browder’s personal hell didn’t end with his release from Rikers.
In November of 2013, six months after he left the prison, Browder attempted suicide again. He attempted to slit his wrists, but was halted when a friend stopped by and intervened. When the friend left the house to find Browder’s mother, he tried to hang himself. Browder was then taken to the psychiatric ward at St. Barnabas Hospital.
Paul V. Prestia, Browder’s attorney, told the Los Angeles Times that every day was a struggle for Browder, who died at his home in the Bronx at age 22.
“I think what caused the suicide was his incarceration and those hundreds and hundreds of nights in solitary confinement, where there were mice crawling up his sheets in that little cell,” Prestia said in a phone interview Sunday evening. “Being starved, and not being taken to the shower for two weeks at a time … those were direct contributing factors.… That was the pain and sadness that he had to deal with every day, and I think it was too much for him.”
Prestia then became emotional, his voice wavering as he recalled Browder, whom he said hadn’t had mental health problems before he was arrested and jailed in 2010.
“He was a good friend of mine — I wasn’t just his attorney, you know?” Prestia went silent for a few seconds, then continued: “He was a really good kid.”
When Gonnerman interviewed Browder in October 2014, he told her the progress he made since being home didn’t feel like much to him:
“It’s been a year now, and I got a part-time job, and I got my G.E.D.,” he said. “But, when you think about it, that’s nothing. People tell me because I have this case against the city I’m all right. But I’m not all right. I’m messed up. I know that I might see some money from this case, but that’s not going to help me mentally. I’m mentally scarred right now. That’s how I feel. Because there are certain things that changed about me and they might not go back.”
According to Prestia, Browder was attending a community college in the Bronx, and had a 3.5 GPA.
When he came out [of jail] and I first met him, he was completely broken — I had to show him how to use a computer; he had to get a job. These were issues he was going to have for his whole life. It’s not his fault. He didn’t deserve that.
Browder’s family wants to ensure that what happened to their loved one doesn’t happen to anyone else. In a statement provided to the Los Angeles Times, they said:
After fighting so hard to get out of jail — and then fighting on the outside to restart his life — he ultimately was unable to overcome his own pain and torment, which emanated from his experiences in solitary confinement.
We ask the public to respect our privacy during this very difficult time, and we pray that Kalief’s death will not be in vain. We ask that the mayor and every public official in New York City take every action possible to ensure that no other person in New York City will ever again be forced to live through all that Kalief endured.
Browder wasn’t the first adolescent to suffer abuse and mistreatment at Rikers, but his tragic case helped bring attention to the rampant corruption at the prison. In December 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that NYC had ended punitive isolation for young inmates following a damning Justice Department report that described a “culture of violence” at Rikers.
“When you go over the three years that he spent [in jail] and all the horrific details he endured, it’s unbelievable that this could happen to a teenager in New York City. He didn’t get tortured in some prison camp in another country. It was right here!” said Prestia.
But sadly, Browder’s case isn’t really that unusual. The US has an ever-growing prison population. In fact, we don’t just have the world’s largest prison population per capita, we blow every other country out of the water, as Andrew Pontbriand pointed out in a recent article. And with that growing prison population comes abuse, corruption, mistreatment, and exploitation. Many of the incarcerated are locked up for non-violent, victimless crimes – and many of those inmates are mentally ill and do not receive proper care, and are more likely to be abused than other prisoners.
And let’s not forget Chicago police’s “black site” at Homan Square, which operated for who knows how long before its existence was revealed to the public by The Guardian earlier this year. There, Americans have been “disappeared” and denied basic Constitutional rights: they are held in secret without being permitted to contact family members or attorneys, left out of official booking databases, beaten, shackled, and allegedly sexually abused. One has to wonder if Homan Square is the only facility of its kind in America.
But perhaps the most disturbing fact about the American “justice” system is this: approximately two million children are arrested every year – 95% for non-violent crimes; and the United States incarcerates 5 times more children than anywhere else on earth.
In 2010, approximately 70,800 juveniles were incarcerated in youth detention facilities alone. Approximately 500,000 youth are brought to detention centers in a given year. This data does not reflect juveniles tried as adults. Around 40% are incarcerated in privatized, for-profit facilities.
This is America. These kinds of things aren’t supposed to happen here. We deserve better than this, and so do our children.
Lily Dane is a staff writer for The Daily Sheeple, where this article first appeared. Her goal is to help people to “Wake the Flock Up!”