Kalief Browder's Rikers Island Nightmare Reflects The Worst Of The Criminal Justice System

June 8th 2015

On Saturday afternoon, 22-year-old Kalief Browder removed an air conditioner from its station in a windowsill, and climbed out feet first with a cord wrapped around his neck. His mother would only find him later, when she went into the backyard of their home in the Bronx, in New York City. 

Browder was the subject of a powerful profile in the New Yorker, which detailed the time he spent languishing in New York's notorious Rikers Island prison, awaiting trial. His incarceration played out in a bizarre and tragic way that his family and lawyers argue was ultimately the cause of his mental health problems, and ultimately, his demise. 

The extremity of Browder's story, reported by the New Yorker's Jennifer Gonnerman last October, has allegorized the problems that rack that facility, and the dangers of youth incarceration. In 2010, Browder, 16 at the time, and a friend were picked up in the Bronx for allegedly stealing a backpack. Among other dubious blocks to his release, Browder's family was unable to raise the $10,000 bail that was set, and he spent three years waiting for a trial at Rikers. 

It was during this time, his family says, that Browder's mental health began to deteriorate, largely thanks to the more than 400 days he spent in solitary confinement, and the abuse he was subject to from prison guards and other inmates inside the complex. Gonnerman reported that he tried to commit suicide "several times." His case was ultimately dismissed in 2013, but the problems followed him out of Rikers, creeping into his life as a free man; he tried to end his life again. After spending time in a psychiatric ward, Browder seemed to be on the mend; he seemed stable, and was going to classes regularly (an anonymous donor had offered to pay his tuition). But Gonnerman reported in a remembrance on the New Yorker's website Sunday that the depth of the injuries was likely more than anyone realized: "Ma, I can't take it anymore," he told his mother on Friday night. 

On Sunday, Browder's lawyer, Paul V. Prestia, speaking to the Los Angeles Times, explained that his time at Rikers was to blame for his death. 

"'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 in a phone interview Sunday evening. '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.'" 

"' He was a good friend of mine – I wasn't just his attorney, you know?...He was a really good kid.'" 

Browder's case understandably caused ripple effects, even nudging NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio to reform the city's court system, and to try and curb out-of-hand violence at Rikers. Browder's case has also been frequently cited by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) when he speaks of the need for reforming the criminal justice system. "So when you see people and you see some of this anger at people in the streets and you're like, 'Why are they so unhappy?' Think about Kalief Browder and think about how his friends must feel about American justice, how his parents must feel and about how his community feels," Paul said in New Hampshire on Saturday, according to the Washington Post. Paul also tweeted to offer his condolences. 

Others expressed their grief and anger on Twitter, in reaction to Browder's death, which came to light Sunday in Gonnerman's piece. 

In the wake of the New Yorker story, Browder was invited onto The View by Rosie O'Donnell, who would later invite him over for dinner. 

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