Kalief Browder: Imprisoned for Three Years at Rikers Without Trial Commits Suicide

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Content Note: This article discusses suicide, abuse and mistreatment/torture of a minor by the state.

Kalief Browder was, by most accounts, a pretty normal teenager before his arrest. Then, on May 15th, 2010, just before his seventeenth birthday, he and a friend were stopped while walking back to his house in the Bronx, New York. They were stopped by police, who claimed he had robbed a man earlier that night. When a search turned up nothing illegal in the possession of either teen, suddenly the claim changed: the man who said he had been robbed claimed it was two weeks ago, not that same evening. Browder had little way of knowing how entirely this single interaction with police would change his life.

Because Browder had a previous offense that listed him as a “youthful offender” on probation, he was kept in custody while his friend was released the following week. His criminal record consisted of a joyride in a stolen vehicle with a friend. While his bail was set at $3,000, for his financially struggling and large family, it may as well have been $100,000. It wasn’t long before Browder was sent off to Riker’s Island, where he would be housed in decrepit conditions in the Robert N. Davoren Center with roughly 400 other minor boys.

Unable to afford a private attorney, Browder was assigned one by the courts. His attorney, according to Browder, never came to see him or even performed a teleconference with his client. The attorney was unable to recall if he had spoken with Browder, but believed he probably had. Virtually all communication with the court-appointed attorney took place via Browder’s mother, as Browder’s phone calls were never answered or returned. Because of a backlog of trials and a dearth of public funding for the Bronx justice system, Browder’s case, which rested solely on the testimony of the alleged victim, sat untouched for years. While waiting for trial, he struggled to relate to the other boys in lock up, deciding in the end to focus on bulking up using the exercise facilities and to keep to himself for his own protection. Within days, however, he learned that the other inmates were only part of the problem.


Kalief’s first visit to solitary confinement or “the Bing” happened within weeks of his arrival, because Browder tried to stop another prisoner who was harassing other inmates and throwing his shoes. He spent two weeks in solitary confinement as a result, but that was only the first time. (Photo: Riker’s Island via Wikipedia)

In a heart-wrenching profile piece published in The New Yorker late last fall, Browder recalls being rounded up by guards shortly after arriving and lined up against a wall with other inmates. The guards hit and beat each of the minors in the line, trying to get them to confess who had started a fight earlier (that Browder had nothing to do with). When they were done, they let the teens that they had brutalized decide if they would go back to bed or to the med center, but made certain the boys know that those who went to the med center and reported the assault would be charged with a crime and placed in solitary confinement. Browder, like all the others, chose to take his lumps and go back to bed. He was beaten more than that once; The New Yorker published video of Browder being beaten by guards while incarcerated.

In July, nearly two-and-a-half months after his arrest, Browder finally had his first day in court, where he learned that he was being charged with assault and second-degree robbery and was held without bail. Because of the congesting in the Bronx justice system and technicalities, Browder wasn’t even given a day in court at all during 2011; he was held in prison while his case was repeatedly postponed. In early 2012, he was offered 3.5 years in prison if he plead guilty; Browder refused and insisted that he wanted the case to go to trial.

While he was incarcerated, he was mistreated and barely cared for. The teens in this facility were expected to hand-wash their own clothing with prison soap in a bucket. Browder’s adoptive mother was kind enough to wash his clothing for him every week and exchange it with him during his weekly visits. His first visit to solitary confinement or “the Bing” happened within weeks of his arrival, because Browder tried to stop another prisoner who was harassing other inmates and throwing his shoes. He spent two weeks in solitary confinement as a result, but that was only the first time.

As he was locked in solitary repeatedly, including for a ten-month long stretch of time when he was only seventeen, Browder struggled to keep ahold of himself. He was allowed to shower once a day and to make one six-minute call per day. He was feed three times a day through a slot in the door, never enough food to keep his growing mind and body comfortable; he complained of hunger to family members who visited, who reported that he lost weight in solitary.

To keep his mind active, Browder learned to love books instead of the video games he had always enjoyed. He said in an interview that his favorite book was House of Bush, House of Saud by Craig Unger , a tome which explores the Bush families ties to powerful Middle Eastern families and how that relationship impacted foreign and domestic policy.

Despite this clear indication of a bright, hungry mind, Browder wasn’t given proper intellectual stimulation. Even his education was impacted by his solitary confinement; normal inmates are allowed to attend class daily, working toward their high school diploma or GED. In solitary, worksheets were shoved through the door, eventually collected, and then returned with a grade.

Eventually, the isolation and desperation borne of long solitary confinement, a punishment most consider cruel and torturous, got the better of Browder, and he attempted to kill himself by tearing his sheets into strips and trying to hang himself from the light fixture in the room. That was February 8, 2012, over a year and a half since his arrest. He was treated for medical issues and then taken back to solitary confinement, this time without anything to read, a sheet, or even his clothing. His next court date was March 16th, 2012, and his trial was postponed yet again. Desperate, the next day Browder stomped on and broke the bucket in his cell, sharpening a shard and attempting to use it to slit his wrists until a guard intervened.

The following fall, after his classmates at school had already graduated, he was offered another plea deal: two-and-a-half years, or time served, meaning he could go home. Browder refused, demanding his trial and a chance to prove himself innocent. His trial was delayed repeatedly again, through the end of 2012. Then, in 2013, two things happened. First, a new judge (his ninth) was appointed to the case, and then, in May of 2013, the prosecutors admitted they could not proceed with the trial (the victim had returned to Mexico and would not return their correspondence), and the charges against Browder were dismissed. He turned twenty years old just days before he was released from Riker’s Island.

After his release, Browder struggled to re-integrate himself into mainstream American society. His friends had graduated high school, had jobs and places of their own. He, however, was haunted by repeated abuse and beatings and the specter of his time in solitary confinement. In November of 2013, Browder first attempted to kill himself with a kitchen knife and was saved by the intervention of a friend, only to try to hang himself. He was admitted to St. Barnabas Hospital, where his suicide attempt was qualified as “serious.”

After getting out, he tried to improve his life. Browder studied for the GED and passed on his first attempt. He enrolled in community college, and even began speaking with a journalist to make his story public. He got a job and dreamed of being a professional like those he saw on Wall Street eventually. Eventually, a family member told him about attorney Paul V. Presti, who in 2014 filed a lawsuit against the Bronx for the terrible mismanagement of Browder’s case.

When Browder’s story was published in The New Yorker, he was quoted as saying

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.

His story received a decent amount of attention; one generous reader went so far as to contact Bronx Community College and pay for his next semester of school. Family members recall how that encouraged him to work even harder, but the demons that haunted him were never far away. He repeatedly checked to ensure windows were locked before he could sleep in his childhood home. He watched behind him when traveling, worried about being stalked or followed. He was distant and guarded from those he had once been friends with, something he didn’t like at all.

The pressure, the internal pain eventually proved to be too much. On Saturday, June 6th, 2015, Kalief Browder took an air conditioner out of the wall shortly after noon, wrapped a cord around his neck, and forced himself out of the hole in the wall, hanging himself. His mother discovered his body after hearing a loud thumping noise.

What happened to Kalief Browder is a tragedy and a (possibly intentional) miscarriage of justice. He was held in prison for three years, much of that in solitary confinement, for a crime he always maintained he had not committed. When he was released, he faced the uphill battle of taking his government to court and was not given adequate social support for the mental illness and suffering he was experiencing as a direct result of his prolonged imprisonment. He was beaten and tortured while on Riker’s Island, and deserved, if nothing else, access to free therapy with the best professionals available in New York, instead of being told to pick himself back up and learn to cope with his stolen youth, derailed life, and serious mental health issues.

There is a Facebook page, entitled Justice for Kalief Browder, which is tracking the fallout of Browder’s tragic suicide. Public funeral or visitation dates have not been announced at this time.


Photo Credit: Kalief Browder’s public Facebook page