Kalief Browder, a 22 year old New York resident, committed suicide last year. The first I heard of this young man was two days ago on a New Yorker podcast. It was the anniversary of his death. The piece moved me to share what I learned about his life.
I had heard of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and Walter Scott. Names that have become symbols of racial injustice in this country when it comes to policing. Each of these black individuals lost their lives in split second decisions by white officers. How much racial prejudice motivated these decisions, we don’t truly know. Cops got overzealous, lives were lost. One occurrence would be too many.
The Kalief Browder case epitomizes a systemic failure, a clear and heartbreaking example of a breakdown in the justice apparatus.
Browder fell victim to the institution. His story would be more believable if it happened in North Korea.
At the age of 16 he was picked up by the police and arrested for stealing a backpack. He claims he never stole it. For purposes of the story, it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter because the boy sat in prison for three years without a trial. He spent three years in Rikers Island, a notoriously brutal prison. He spent two of the the three years in solitary confinement. A teenager awaiting trial for petty theft.
Kalief struggled to adjust to the harsh conditions. He was repeatedly abused by officers in the prison, video of which has been published. He was deprived of food. He attempted suicide multiple times in his cell. He reported getting mocked by officers during one of the attempts.
After three years, no conviction no trial, the charges were dropped without so much of an apology. Just like that, Browder re-entered the world.
He struggled to adjust to reality. Three of his most formative years, changing from a boy into a man, were spent caged in a 7 x 12 foot cell. His mind never recovered. He was in and out of psych wards after his release. There were two attempted suicides before the final, fatal act on June 6, 2015.
The inhumanity of the situation is appalling, besides the clear violations of his civil rights. Innocent until proven guilty. Right to a speedy trial. Protection from cruel and unusual punishment. A failure on all counts.
What pains me the most about this case is that the system clearly saw this person as a nobody. He didn’t matter. Had Kalief been a star athlete getting media attention for his scholarship offers, this wouldn’t have happened. If he were the son of a well-to-do, he wouldn’t have spent a day behind bars.
In the land of the free, we demand better. A few politicians are invoking Kalief Browder’s name for the sake of criminal justice reform, including President Obama in an op-ed for the Washington Post questioning solitary confinement. To his credit, Obama acted to stop the use of solitary confinement for juveniles as a response to low-level infractions.
We need to drastically reform our justice system in this country, and I hope that Kalief Browder’s name continues to provoke active responses, so his suffering can bring redemption for others.