Arrested at 16 years old for a crime he swore he didn’t commit. Charged as an adult on suspicion of stealing a backpack. Three years in jail waiting for a trial that never happened.
Kalief Browder spent two of those years in solitary confinement on New York’s notoriously harsh Rikers Island. Mentally tormented, he repeatedly tried to take his own life before he was released without charges in 2013 and became a symbol for justice reform in the nation’s largest city.
But even as a free man, Browder couldn’t make himself whole. It all ended Saturday with his suicide at age 22.
Now, his family wants to make sure what happened to him doesn’t happen to anyone else.
“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,” Browder’s family said Monday in a statement provided to the Los Angeles Times.
“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’s suicide at home in the Bronx has sent ripples of grief through those who had become familiar with his case, which was documented in a New Yorker magazine story last October.
The story garnered national attention and outrage at a time when extra scrutiny has fallen on the way the criminal justice system handles people of color.
Browder’s case drew particular scrutiny on New York’s Rikers Island Jail, which has been accused of mistreating not just Browder, but hundreds of other young inmates.
“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,” Browder’s attorney, Paul V. 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’s case at least partially inspired New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to announce a plan this spring to speed up the city’s court systems to prevent other New York inmates from waiting hundreds of days without trial.
On Monday, the mayor mourned Browder’s death.
“There is no reason he should have gone through this ordeal, and his tragic death is a reminder that we must continue to work each day to provide the mental health services so many New Yorkers need,” De Blasio said in a statement, adding that jail reforms were ongoing. “On behalf of all New Yorkers, we send our condolences to the Browder family during this difficult time.”
At a Monday morning news conference, Melissa Mark-Viverito, speaker of the New York City Council, said Browder’s story was “disturbing” and showed reforms were "desperately needed.”
“It really is a depressing situation to think that a young man sat idle in Rikers for three years,” Mark-Viverto told reporters, according to audio of the news conference provided by her office. “He came out a broken man, a broken young man, and our system created that reality. We can’t walk away from that. So, if this isn’t a call to action, I really don’t know what is.... This is not just a New York City issue. This is a federal issue. This is a national issue.”
Browder’s case drew increased scrutiny to municipal jails and courts at a time when news reports and federal officials were beginning to uncover allegations of widespread fining and jailing of residents in Ferguson, Mo., and St. Louis County over minor infractions.
In December, the U.S. Department of Justice joined a 2012 class-action lawsuit hoping to force New York City to speed up reforms at Rikers Island Jail, which was accused of tolerating a “culture of violence” surrounding its young inmates.
A damning August report followed an investigation that documented hundreds of cases of young inmates injured during each of the two years researched, starting in July 2012.
It recommended that De Blasio and city officials undertake 70 specific measures, including increasing cameras in adolescent areas of jails to better monitor their treatment.
It also recommended ending punitive solitary confinement for most adolescents, which De Blasio ordered halted in December.
At that time, the number of adolescents housed at Rikers averaged 489 a day in fiscal year 2014, a drop from 682 in 2013 and 791 in 2012, the city said. But Justice Department officials say the adolescent population is difficult to handle because about 51% suffer from some form of mental illness.
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,” said Prestia, his attorney. “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 returned to college in spring and did well, finishing the semester with a 3.5 grade-point average, 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.
Tina Susman in New York contributed to this report.
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