By Gabriella Staykova, Staff Writer
Kalief Browder’s arrest was a mistake, a perfect case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was coming home from a party when the police apprehended him for the theft of a backpack he had never touched. Despite his denial of any wrongdoing, they arrested him and charged him with robbery, grand larceny, and assault.
The court set his bail at $3,000, but his family was far from wealthy. By the time they scraped together the money, the judge denied his bail altogether because Kalief was on probation for watching while his friends took a truck for a joyride.
His case should have been open and shut. He was innocent and there was absolutely no proof of any wrongdoing on his part, and indeed, he was quickly acquitted when the trial finally took place—three years later.
At the time, the Bronx judicial system was overflowing with unheard cases, in what The New York Times called “failures by nearly every component of the criminal justice system” and a “culture of delay.” Browder’s three-year wait before his trial would be the worst experience of his life. He was sent to Rikers Island, a Bronx prison known for abusing its inmates, which Kalief experienced firsthand.
Fights, gangs, and abuse by guards filled Kalief’s days at Rikers. Once, after a fight broke out, the guards lined up the inmates, including the innocent ones like Kalief, and beat them, one by one. Some left with bloody noses, swollen faces, black eyes, and a warning. If they reported the incident, they would receive solitary confinement.
Kalief didn’t say a word, but it wasn’t long before he found himself in an isolated cell. Solitary confinement, classified as torture by the United Nations, was a common punishment in New York City’s prisons, so when an inmate attacked Kalief, both of them wound up in the Central Punitive Segregation Unit.
At first, Browder saw it as a chance to escape the violence surrounding him, but the danger and threats didn’t stop. Verbal spats with guards would often escalate, and as Browder told The New Yorker, an officer knocked him down on the way to the shower and beat him: “He put his forearm on my face, and my face was on the floor, and he just started punching me in the leg.”
After seventeen grueling months of solitary confinement, Kalief was ruled not guilty and released, but the torture had already taken its toll. He felt isolated, distant, and stripped of his adolescence. Where his friends had achieved academic success and secured jobs, he had no high school diploma and still lived with his mother.
Kalief returned to his studies, successfully earning his GED and attending to community college. He sued the city of New York City for his suffering, but his experience continued to weigh heavily on him, culminating in two unsuccessful suicide attempts. Eventually, he was found hanging from the air conditioning unit in his mother’s house.
His family sued the city for wrongful death, arguing that the psychological and physical abuse he faced in Rikers Island pushed him to commit suicide. In many ways, the suit followed a similar path as Kalief’s court case. It was plagued by delays and setbacks like the reappearance of Kalief’s adoptive father, who had left the family several years prior. Just over three years since the lawsuit began, a settlement was reached this past January. Browder’s family received $3.3 million and New York City released a statement about the reforms to be instituted following Kalief’s experience.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called Kalief’s death “a wake-up call to this city,” and changes rushed through the system. One month after his passing, New York City announced an end to solitary confinement for individuals under 21. Rikers Island announced that it would begin to isolate 18 to 21-year-olds from the rest of the prison population, giving them special education and housing. Reform began to look real and tangible, with national attention being called to the issue.
Still, the city has not fully committed to change. Soon after implementing the age-divided prison, Rikers Island returned to a mixed population, citing high costs. The move received blowback from experts, who lauded the age division program as a way to ensure a smooth transition after release and reduce recidivism rates.
Browder told The New Yorker, “I feel like I was robbed of my happiness,” and until the city enforces true criminal justice and prison reform, many other young, undeserving men will feel that way too.