Kalief Browder of the Bronx, who spent three of his late teen years imprisoned on Rikers Island waiting to be tried for a petty robbery charge that was ultimately dismissed, committed suicide on Saturday, at the age of 22. He hung himself with an air conditioner cord at his Bronx home.
Browder, who suffered from bouts of depression and paranoia in the wake of his release from Rikers in the spring of 2013, was the subject of a harrowing profile in the New Yorker, published last fall. Jennifer Gonnerman, who spent months with Browder and documented the teenager's refusal to plead guilty for a crime he did not commit, described a young man who was unwaveringly committed to his innocence, even when defending it meant more time behind bars. Here he is appearing before a Judge in March 2013, a few months before his release:
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.”
Twice in 2012, between months-long stretches in solitary confinement for fights with fellow inmates, Browder tried to end his life, first by hanging, and then by cutting his wrists. He attempted again in November 2013, six months after leaving Rikers, prompting a stint in the psychiatric ward at St. Barnabas. He also attended classes at Bronx Community College, where he did especially well this spring, according to Gonnerman. But, recently, she writes, "He was gaunt, restless, and deeply paranoid. He had recently thrown out his brand-new television, he explained, 'because it was watching me.'" On Friday, he told his mother, “Ma, I can’t take it anymore.”
Browder's time in jail was punctuated with beatings at the hands of correction officers, and fellow inmates—made public after Gonnerman obtained surveillance footage this spring. In her own obituary for Browder, published over the weekend, Gonnerman described Browder's willingness to make the violent footage public:
I sat next to Kalief while he watched these videos for the first time. Afterward, we discussed whether they should be published on The New Yorker’s Web site. I told him that it was his decision. He said to put them online.
He was driven by the same motive that led him to talk to me for the first time, a year earlier. He wanted the public to know what he had gone through, so that nobody else would have to endure the same ordeals.
Browder's story prompted Mayor de Blasio to vow to speed up the trial process in New York City, fast-tracking cases for inmates who have spent a year or more in prison without a conviction. And last fall, prisoners 18 and under were barred from solitary confinement. But the NY Times summed things up well last week, on the year anniversary of de Blasio's hiring of Joseph Ponte as correction commissioner:
A little over a year after hiring one of the country’s leading correction professionals to be commissioner, allotting tens of millions of dollars in additional funding and making jail reform a top political priority, the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio can say with confidence that its plan to reduce violence at one of the island’s many jails, housing 179 adolescents, has worked. For five months now.
That leaves 13 jails, with 10,000 inmates, to go.
In a phone interview with the LA Times last night, Browder's attorney said, "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." He added, "That was the pain and sadness that he had to deal with every day, and I think it was too much for him."
UPDATE: Mayor de Blasio issued the following statement this afternoon:
Chirlane and I are deeply saddened by the death of Kalief Browder. 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. On behalf of all New Yorkers, we send our condolences to the Browder family during this difficult time.