Kalief Browder died by suicide four years ago today when he was only 22 years old. 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 four years ago, he took his own life. Last year, I wrote a reflection on Kalief’s case when I watched Jay-Z’s documentary on his story– TIME: The Kalief Browder Story. 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. Last week, people all over the country were outraged by the Central Park Five story in When They See Us, and although I’m glad that more people are noticing how evil and unfair prosecutors, judges, and cops are, I hope that they will soon learn how Kevin, Antron, Yusef, Raymond, and Korey’s stories weren’t anomalies. Kalief Browder suffered a similar experience and unfortunately, his trauma took his life. One year ago I wrote about Kalief and what was done to him. Here’s a re-post of that write up for anyone who hasn’t read it and those who have. I hope we never forget what happened to Kalief in 2010 and how his suffering claimed his existence four years ago. I hope we never stop fighting for justice for Kalief and every victim of the criminal injustice system and police brutality.
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 so-called 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. Kalief 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, Kalief pleaded guilty to the charge and was sentenced to five years of probation. At the time, Kalief didn’t know how serious this sentence was, which essentially guaranteed he would always have a 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 in Rikers Island would destroy an innocent child’s 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 corrupt prosecutors working against their every move. Despite the case being incredibly straight forward and the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution certifying 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 trial judge could begin the process and a jury selection. The prosecutor on the case repeatedly declined the trial, saying they were not yet ready. This process would continue for months and Kalief remained in jail through the rest of the year. To make matters worse, Kalief stated that O’Meara never went to visit him at Rikers once throughout the process, opting instead to use Skype or phone calls as their main form of communication. Kalief grew frustrated and impatient as he had been unlawfully imprisoned for a crime without even having a sentencing. 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.
Through 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: once by hanging himself with his bed sheet and the other by slicing his wrist with a broken bucket. He dramatically lost weight after having his food taken away and became dramatically 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 going to trial or being officially sentenced to prison. He was simply 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 District Attorney’s overwhelming case load. Kalief was released from prison without a trial, without a jury, and without a verdict. 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 celebrities such as Jay-Z and Rosie O’Donnell, Kalief was dying on the inside. On June 6, 2015, Kalief hung himself with an air conditioning cord. A year after his death, his mother, Venida, died of a broken heart. Although his family received a $3.3 million settlement with New York City, no dollar amount could erase Kalief’s trauma or bring back the boy and his mother. We must remember his face, his story, and his pain and fight for true justice outside of prisons in honor of Kalief.