New York City will pay $3.3 million to the estate of Kalief Browder, the young man who spent his late teenage years on Rikers Island for a petty robbery charge that was ultimately dismissed, before committing suicide in 2015. A spokesperson for the city law department said they hoped the settlement would "bring some measure of closure to the Browder family."
Browder was arrested in 2010 after he was accused of stealing a man's backpack, and spent three years waiting for a trial to prove his innocence. His imprisonment, which included more than 800 days in solitary confinement, was the subject of a harrowing New Yorker feature in 2014. It described a cycle of abuse suffered by Browder at the hands of guards and fellow inmates, and months-long stretches in solitary in which he believed he was starving to death. Throughout the process, Browder maintained his innocence, even when it meant spending more time behind bars:
Judge DiMango explained to Browder, “If you go to trial and lose, you could get up to fifteen.” Then she offered him an even more tempting deal: plead guilty to two misdemeanors—the equivalent of sixteen months in jail—and go home now, on the time already served. “If you want that, I will do that today,” DiMango said. “I could sentence you today. . . . It’s up to you.” “I’m all right,” Browder said. “I did not do it. I’m all right.”
“You are all right?” DiMango said.
“Yes,” he said. “I want to go to trial.”
In 2015, two years after he was released due to a lack of evidence, Browder hung himself with an air conditioner cord at his Bronx home. Attorneys for Browder blamed the young man's experience on Rikers 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. Being starved, and not being taken to the shower for two weeks at a time … those were direct contributing factors," his attorney Sanford Rubenstein told the LA Times. "That was the pain and sadness that he had to deal with every day, and I think it was too much for him."
Attention to Browder's experience would eventually force Rikers Island to abolish solitary confinement for inmates under 21—a practice that continues elsewhere across the state. His case also highlighted the injustices of the cash bail system, which persists to this day.
According to the law department, "Kalief Browder's story helped inspire numerous reforms to the justice system to prevent this tragedy from ever happening again, including an end to punitive segregation for young people on Rikers Island."
In a statement to the Associated Press, Rubenstein called the settlement “fair and reasonable.”
If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide: do not leave the person alone; remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt; and call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional.