Innocent Teenager Commits Suicide After Being Placed in Solitary Confinement For Almost 22 Months

On May 15th, 2010 Kalief Browder, a 16 year old high school sophomore was walking home from a party with his friends in the Bronx when he was stopped and detained by police under suspicion of stealing a backpack. 5 years later, Kalief Browder has committed suicide.

After his arrest in 2010, Kalief spent 3 years in Rikers jail waiting for a trial that never happened. Throughout that time, Kalief maintained his innocence, refusing to accept the guilty plea deals he was being offered. Kalief faced tremendous abuse from both inmates and guards, eventually being released in 2013 when his case was dismissed.

After release, Kalief continued to struggle with the trauma he endured. Kalief had attempted suicide 5 or 6 times during his detainment and would attempt suicide again 6 months after being released. In late 2014 he was hospitalized twice and on Saturday June 6th (this past Saturday) 2015 Kalief successfully took his life. 

During around 22 out of the 33 months that Kalief Browder was imprisoned at Rikers jail, he was held in solitary confinement– a juvenile imprisonment practice that the New York Department of Corrections has since banned.

Rikers Island is a jail complex (consisting of 10 different jails) that has been riddled with controversy and lawsuits claiming abuse, corruption, and excessive delays in trial proceedings. 85% of those locked up on Rikers Island have not yet been convicted of a crime.

In the Spring of 2014 Jennifer Gonnerman, a reporter from New Yorker magazine, began meeting with Kalief and writing about his story. Gonnerman learned that most of the delays in Browder’s trial were due to prosecutors not being ready as well as scheduling issues. Gonnerman said to Democracy Now, Everybody looks at their calendars, and maybe the prosecutor can’t do it, or maybe the judge can’t do it, or maybe the defense attorney can’t. And it became a sort of logistics game at every court date. But, you know, one or two weeks turning into six weeks, you know, for somebody like Kalief, that’s six more weeks that he’s got to wait.”

During solitary confinement, Browder dealt with multiple forms of abuse from both guards and inmates. Guards would often starve Kalief, once starving him four times in a row which means no breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and then no breakfast again. The food he did receive was often not enough, which meant begging for more food from the guards who could choose whether or not to heed his calls.

Kalief faced bullying which sometimes resulted in fights. On other occasions Kalief was violently attacked. Earlier in 2015 the New Yorker was able to obtain graphic camera footage of two of these incidents (see footage below). One video shows Kalief being thrown to the ground by a guard as Kalief is being transported to the showers. The second video shows Kalief being attacked by almost a dozen other teenagers after Kalief punches an inmate who spat in Kalief’s face.

When it comes to education, the adolescents are supposed to be taken to on-site classes every day. However, those in solitary confinement don’t get to go to class. Instead they are slipped worksheets under the door and given deadlines. Gonnerman shares with Democracy Now that Kalief would try to better himself by trying to teach himself how to be a better writer, better at math, etc. But to his disappointment, often times the deadline would arrive and no one would come to pick up the work.

Kalief’s story is only one example of how flawed and ineffective our criminal justice system is and countless others have reported similar experiences. Apparently, Kalief’s story was instrumental in getting New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio to make sweeping reforms to the criminal justice system in NYC but questions are arising as to whether or not these changes will be enough. In April of 2015, the mayor announced a plan to speed up the city’s courts. The mayor told the New Yorker that the “city is working on a multi-year effort to modernize the city’s criminal-justice system and reduce the number of people held in it’s jails.”

U.S. attorney Preet Bharara claims the city’s reforms are moving too slowly. In June 2015 Bharara warned his office may file a civil lawsuit against the city in order to force changes. In a statement dating back to August 2014, Bharara condemned Rikers island as a “broken institution for adolescents” where young men are “cosigned to a corrections crucible that seems more inspired by Lord of the Flies than any legitimate philosophy of humane detention.”

Click here to read Jennifer Gonnerman’s New Yorker article that brought Browder’s story national attention.

Click here to watch Kalief Browder being interviewed by Marc Lamont Hill on Huff Post Live shortly after Kalief’s release.

Click here to watch footage of Kalief being attacked while imprisoned.

Click here for Democracy Now detailed coverage of Kalief’s imprisonment.

Click here for Democracy Now Coverage of Kalief’s suicide.

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