Remembering Kalief Browder After His Birthday

Kalief Browder

Kalief Browder died six years ago when he was only 22 years old. Yesterday he would’ve turned 28 had his life not been destroyed by incarceration and the legal system. He was released from jail at Riker’s Island in New York City only two years prior to his death, but the trauma of incarceration, solitary confinement, and the threat of returning to jail was too much for Kalief to handle and six years ago, he passed away. I think it’s important to remember and honor Kalief and every other person whose life was taken by the criminal injustice system, the prison industrial complex, and the police force, and recognize how common injustice is in America. A few years ago I wrote about Kalief and what was done to him in jail and afterward. I hope we never forget what happened to him in 2010 and how his suffering claimed his existence six years ago. I hope we never stop fighting for justice for Kalief and every victim of the prison industrial complex (here’s a collection of resources if you want to learn more about PIC abolition).

When Kalief was 16, he and a friend were falsely accused of stealing a backpack containing a cell phone, camera, and $700, despite the fact that Kalief was home at the time of the apparent robbery. Kalief and his friend were walking home from a party one night as a cop car pulled up next to them and officers began accusing them of theft. The robbery victim sat in the car and watched the accusations take place. When Kalief denied stealing the backpack that night, the victim changed his story and said that the robbery had actually taken place two weeks prior. The officers handcuffed Kalief and his friend and told them they were going down to the precinct for questioning, but they should be released later that night. When they arrived at the department, both boys were fingerprinted and questioned for exactly three minutes about the alleged theft before they were booked at the Bronx County Criminal Court. Kalief originally thought their being stopped by the cops was a routine “stop and frisk,” a policy put in place in New York City when Rudy Giulani was the mayor, which allowed cops to temporarily detain, question, and pat down any random passerby without reason. Kalief had been stopped and frisked before and he had one encounter in particular with cops that sent him to jail less than a year earlier. He watched a few of his friends take a bread truck for a joyride, which crashed into another vehicle and when the authorities arrived, Kalief was arrested and charged with grand larceny. Because he didn’t have adequate representation, he pleaded guilty to the charge and was sentenced to five years of probation. At the time, Kalief didn’t know how serious his sentence was, which ensured his criminal record. Kalief’s false arrest for the theft negated any chance of his release as he now had another charge while on probation. The day after his arrest, Kalief was charged with grand larceny, robbery, and assault, and his bail was set for $3,000—an astronomical price his mother Venida was unable to pay as they lived in poverty in the Bronx. Within one day, Kalief’s life was changed forever. A backpack he didn’t steal, a $3,000 bail, and three years on Rikers Island would destroy his life. 

Rikers Island is located in the middle of the East River in New York and it is infamous for the terrifying amount of violence between inmates and guards on a daily basis. While in prison, Kalief received the bare minimum representation from his public defender, Brendan O’Meara, due to an overwhelming court system and prosecutors working against their every move. Although he had an alibi and the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution certifies the “right to a speedy and public trial,” Kalief would never receive such treatment. In order for Kalief to receive a trial, the prosecutor and defense attorney would have to state their readiness so the judge could begin the process. The prosecutor on the case repeatedly declined the trial, saying they were not yet ready. This cycle continued for months and Kalief remained in jail through the rest of the year. To make matters worse, Kalief shared that O’Meara never went to visit him at Rikers once during his time there, opting instead to use Skype or phone calls as their main form of communication. Kalief grew frustrated and impatient as he had been detained pretrial without a conviction. O’Meara recommended that Kalief plead guilty to the charges in favor of a three and a half-year prison stint, but Kalief refused, saying he would rather go to trial and face a 15-year sentence than admit to something he did not do. 

Throughout the three years Kalief spent on Rikers Island he was held in solitary confinement for two, including 14 of those months consecutively. During this time, Kalief was beaten senseless by guards, starved for days, and tried to commit suicide twice (CW): once by hanging himself with his bed sheet and the other by slicing his wrist with a broken bucket. He lost weight after having his food taken away and became increasingly more depressed by the day. But still, Kalief declined a plea deal and waited for the trial that he hoped would clear his name. At this point he was imprisoned for nearly three years despite not going to trial and he was only in Rikers because he couldn’t pay the $3,000 to be released. Every broken bone, stomped limb, black eye, lost tooth, and weight loss occurred because he was too poor to post bail. On May 29, 2013, Kalief’s case was dismissed due to the DA’s overwhelming case load. Kalief was released from prison without a trial, a jury, and a verdict. But unfortunately, the weight of Kalief’s trauma in Riker’s would continue to haunt him for the rest of his days. Even though he started school at Bronx Community College and maintained good grades and new alliances with “celebrity activists,” (we don’t believe in those), Kalief suffered mentally. On June 6, 2015, Kalief hung himself with an air conditioning cord. And one year after his death, his mother Venida died as well. Although his family received a $3.3 million settlement with New York City, no dollar amount could erase Kalief’s trauma or bring back Kalief and his mother. It’s been six years since Kalief passed on and while attention toward his traumatic case dwindled with more currently publicized cases taking public attention, we need to build abolitionist futures in our own communities until there aren’t any more Kaliefs suffering from the carceral system.