Kalief Browder, whose three years in jail without trial inspired calls for reform in New York, has committed suicide at age 22, his attorney said Sunday.
Browder was 16 when he was arrested on suspicion of stealing a backpack, and he spent about two years in solitary confinement. He died at home in the Bronx on Saturday, attorney Paul V. Prestia told the Los Angeles Times.
"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."
Browder, who was black, insisted he was innocent. The story told how he had spent two of his three years on Rikers Island in solitary confinement, and how he had attempted suicide multiple times before prosecutors ultimately dropped the charges in May 2013.
Publicity around Browder's case came at a time of increasing scrutiny on jails, prisons and municipal courts, especially in how the nation's justice system treats people of color.
Browder's story drew a passionate outcry from high-profile figures including Rosie O'Donnell, and it prompted New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Jonathan Lippman, the state's chief judge, to announce reforms in April that would speed up the city's municipal court system.
"Kalief 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," De Blasio said in April.
One New York state senator, at a hearing in October, said Browder's case "was not an outlier," noting a 2013 report that said the median time it took to resolve criminal cases in the Bronx was 517 days.
"Any system that jails the innocent for years at a time is both unjust and un-American," Sen. Daniel Squadron said, according to a written copy of his remarks. "Kalief Browder spent three years locked up at Rikers because the system failed him."
Browder continued to struggle after leaving Rikers.
"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," Prestia said. "These were issues he was going to have for his whole life. It's not his fault. He didn't deserve that."
Browder made at least one more unsuccessful suicide attempt six months after his release.
He got his GED, but struggled in his first semester at Bronx Community College before dropping out in the fall, Prestia said, adding that Browder was hospitalized in a mental health facility over the holidays in December.
"I'm not all right," Browder told the New Yorker in its October story. "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."
Browder reenrolled in college in spring and did well, finishing the semester with a 3.5 GPA, Prestia said, and he had a job at the community college tutoring GED students.
"He had varying interests; I think they changed," Prestia said. "I think he wanted to do something like some sort of business-management type of work, but I don't think he really found his niche.… He didn't really have an education in jail. His education was violence; that's what he learned, predominantly, so he was just feeling things out."
Browder had finished depositions in May for the lawsuit he had filed against various city and law enforcement officials, Prestia said, and the case had been headed for a settlement.
The family has not released a statement. Prestia said they were still working on funeral arrangements.