Kalief Browder Was One of Hundreds of Kids Incarcerated at Rikers

June 10th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

Over the weekend, 22-year-old Kalief Browder, who spent years without trial at New York's Rikers Island prison, hanged himself out of a window at his mother's home in the Bronx. 

His family and lawyers, as well as a growing number of critics, maintain that it was his years at Rikers, where he endured more than 400 days of solitary confinement and abuse from prison guards and other inmates, that gave rise to subsequent mental illness, and ultimately his suicide upon release. Browder was just 16 when he was arrested and placed in Rikers for allegedly stealing a backpack. His family was unable to raise the $10,000 bail that was set, among other dubious blocks to his release from the notorious prison. 

Browder's death drew the attention of New York officials, who saw the opportunity as a reason to push reforms to both Rikers itself as well as to the city's mental health system, the Observer reports.

"Chirlane and I are deeply saddened by the death of Kalief Browder," NYC mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement Monday. "Yesterday, the Browder family lost a beloved son and brother. Kalief's story helped inspire our efforts on Rikers Island, where we are working to ensure no New Yorkers spend years in jail waiting for their day in court."

"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," the statement said.



In a city of millions, reforms to criminal incarceration facilities are crucial for officials seeking effective, efficient punishment. Rikers, with its "culture of violence" against young inmates, according to a U.S. Attorney who is suing New York's Department of Corrections, has become a blight on the city's criminal justice system, and a focus of reform efforts. Browder's death will certainly be a boon to those efforts, but it has also sparked renewed insistence on a legislative push to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18, coinciding with calls for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to remove inmates under 18 from Rikers.

The state is currently in the twilight of its legislative session, where the proposal to raise the age is one of many other initiatives that face uncertain futures in Albany in the remaining days. But observers say that it is an imperative aspect of any meaningful criminal justice reform. "For starters, the immediate removal of all youth from Rikers Island is a conservative step in the right direction," Glenn Martin of JustLeadershipUSA said in a statement. "There is no meaningful reform that involves young people remaining on Rikers Island." 

New York is just one of two states in the nation (the other is North Carolina) that automatically incarcerates 16 and 17-year-olds in adult facilities. As Browder's case illustrated, detained youths can be housed with adult populations in local jails while they await trail, and if convicted, are then funneled into the larger adult system. 

But research shows that in adult facilities, youth face a much higher statistical chance to be subject to sexual abuse, as well as a much higher likelihood that they will re-offend in the future. In adult facilities, 16 and 17-year-olds also face a dearth of beneficial rehabilitative programs to get their lives back on track, and are saddled with permanent adult records, hindering education, job eligibility, and housing opportunities. 

Gov. Cuomo, who recently urged the state's legislature to pass his raise-the-age proposal, has so far demonstrated a strong interest in cutting off youth populations from adult ones by setting aside $135 million earmarked to implement reforms. "Raising the age will fundamentally improve both our justice system and public safety – and with the funding to make it happen already set aside, it is imperative that the legislature pass this reform before the end of session," Cuomo said in a statement. 

Under Cuomo's proposal, which follows recommendations from the state's Commission on Youth, Public Safety and Justice, 16 and 17-year-olds would be processed as juveniles except in cases of serious violence. All minors, however, will have access to rehabilitation services. The legislative session ends later this month. 

"By allowing the status quo to continue as is, we are relegating hundreds of teenagers each year – mostly young men of color – to an abusive prison environment that makes them more likely to commit crimes in the future," said Cuomo. "That is not only an injustice; it is an injustice that compromises public safety, and we must make a change," he said. "It's time for the legislature to raise the age."