The life of Kalief Browder was short and exceptionally tragic, and his death had much too do with the appalling situation in the New York City correctional system. Browder, who died by his own hand in 2015, spent three years on Riker’s Island – much of it in solitary confinement – after an arrest for stealing a backpack.
During this period, which began when he was just 16, Browder was neither tried nor convicted. Although he was released in 2013 after dropping of the charges, he never recovered mentally or emotionally from his ordeal and hanged himself in his mom’s home. He was 22. Now, his family has reached a $3.3 million settlement with New York City.
Family Couldn’t Afford Bail
The Bronx-born Browder always maintained his innocence, refusing to plead guilty to a relatively minor crime he didn’t commit, even though conditions at Riker’s were appalling.
However, the $3,000 needed to pay his bail and get him out of Riker’s Island was more than his family could afford. Browder said other inmates and even guards beat him, denied access to food and kept in filth. Worse, however, was the mental anguish he endured because his trial was repeatedly delayed due to the Bronx’s tremendously overtaxed court system.
All told, Browder appeared in court 31 times before eight different judges before his case was finally dismissed. That’s because the person who accused him had left the U.S., and there was no way for the prosecution to move forward. He spent nearly two years of his incarceration alone in 12 x 7-foot cell.
The New Yorker Story
How many Kalief Browder’s are currently languishing in the New York City prison system? It’s hard to say, but Browder’s experience became public in a 2014 article in the New Yorker. The nightmare began when Browder and a friend were coming home from a party in the Bronx. They were in the borough’s Little Italy section when police squad cars surrounded them.
An officer said a man reported they had robbed him, to which Browder replied that he didn’t rob anyone and that they could check his pockets. The police did so, found nothing, but an officer returned from the squad car with a new story: The man wasn’t robbed that night, but two weeks earlier. Browder was arrested and charged with robbery, grand larceny, and assault.
He was already on probation because of a joy ride he had taken with a truck eight months previously, and while his friend was released, the judge ordered $3,000 bail for Browder. Just as they couldn’t afford bail, his family couldn’t afford to hire a lawyer, so a public defender was assigned to Browder. Thus began his journey through the Bronx criminal court system, which the New York Times described as among the most backlogged in the nation.
Life in prison was difficult, but it got worse after Browder got into a fight with another inmate and ended up in solitary confinement. This began a pattern, as most of the two years he spent in solitary resulted from fights. He was able to study for his GED while in solitary and passed the exam soon after his release.
While in prison, Browder twice attempted suicide, goaded, he said, by guards. On one occasion, he tried to hang himself, and on another, he tried to slit his wrists with a sharp implement he had made from a bucket in his cell. After his release, he again attempted suicide and was treated at St. Barnabas Hospital’s psychiatric ward, the first of three such admissions. In June 2015, he tried to commit suicide again, and this time succeeded.
The hell that Browder endured did result in some victories. After the New Yorker story was published, President Barack Obama cited Browder’s case when signing an executive order banning the confinement of juveniles in solitary confinement. New York City stopped locking prisoners under age 21 in solitary.
In 2017, Mayor Bill DeBlasio announced the closing of Riker’s Island. That same year, the corner of East 181st Street, where he called home and where he died, was renamed Kalief Browder Way.
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