A call for jail reforms after death
Family and New York officials mourn a former inmate who committed suicide. He was detained for three years without a trial.
Arrested at age 16 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 at 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 again. 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.
“We ask the public to re- spect 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 in October.
In an interview Sunday, Browder’s attorney, Paul V. Prestia, said he blamed the treatment at Rikers for what happened.
“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. “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.”
It was Browder’s case that partially inspired New York Mayor Bill de Blasio this spring to announce a plan to speed up the city’s court system to prevent other 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 continuing. “On behalf of all New Yorkers, we send our condolences to the Browder family during this difficult time.”
At a Monday 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-Viverito 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.”
In December, the Justice Department joined a 2012 class-action lawsuit to force New York City to speed up reforms at Rikers, whose officials were 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 measures, including increasing cameras in adolescent areas of jails to better monitor their treatment. It also urged that punitive solitary confinement be ended for most adolescents, a practice De Blasio ordered halted in December.
‘He ultimately was unable to overcome his own pain and torment, which emanated from his experiences in solitary confinement.’ — The family of Kalief Browder
KALIEF BROWDER’S story is disturbing and shows jail reforms are “desperately needed,” the speaker of the New York City Council said.