by Matt Clarke
The untimely death of Kalief Browder at age 22 sparked a nationwide movement to enact bail reform and end the use of segregation for young detainees. Both President Obama and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio cited Browder’s suicide – after he served two years in solitary confinement at the Rikers Island jail complex – as inspiring their decisions to ban solitary for juvenile offenders. In January 2019, the City of New York settled a wrongful death suit filed by Browder’s family for $3.3 million.
Browder was accused of stealing a backpack and arrested for second-degree robbery in 2010. The charge was questionable because the accuser’s story changed significantly during his phone call to the police. Nonetheless, Browder, then-16 years old, was booked into jail with his bail set at $3,000 – more than his family could afford.
Detained at Rikers Island, surveillance video showed Browder being assaulted by guards and other prisoners. He repeatedly declined plea bargains that would have resulted in his immediate release, maintaining his innocence throughout three years of incarceration while his case wallowed in the backed-up Bronx court system.
Browder spent two of those years in solitary confinement, where he made his first of several suicide attempts. After 31 court appearances before eight different judges, his case finally came up for trial in 2013. Prosecutors then dropped the charges and Browder was released.
He was free, but not free of the effects of the trauma he experienced. He filed a lawsuit against the city and became a symbol for much-needed criminal justice reform.
“People tell me because I have this case against the city I’m all right,” Browder said in a 2014 interview with The New Yorker. “But I’m not all right. I’m messed up. I know that I might see some money from this case, but that’s not going to help me mentally. I’m mentally scarred right now. That’s how I feel. Because there are certain things that changed about me and they might not go back. Before I went to jail, I didn’t know about a lot of stuff, and now I’m aware. I’m paranoid.
“Prior to going to jail, I never had any mental illnesses,” he added. “I never tried to hurt myself, I never tried to kill myself, I never had any thoughts like that. I had stressful times prior to going to jail, but not like during jail. That was the worst experience that I ever went through in my whole life.”
In 2015, shortly after turning 22, Browder used a bed sheet to hang himself at his mother’s home. [See: PLN, Oct. 2017, p.1; June 2017, p.30].
The New Yorker story made Browder an icon in the national movement for criminal justice reform – especially with respect to juvenile offenders. It spurred Mayor de Blasio to end segregation for 16- and 17-year-old prisoners in the city’s jail system.
“Kalief’s story helped inspire our efforts on Rikers Island, where we are working to ensure that no New Yorkers spend years in jail waiting for their day in court,” de Blasio stated upon hearing of Browder’s death.
In 2016, President Obama authored an op-ed piece for The Washington Post, in which he announced the end of solitary confinement for juveniles in federal facilities. He cited Browder’s “constant struggle to recover from the trauma of being locked up alone for 23 hours a day” and subsequent suicide as motivating him to change the policy.
Browder’s suffering also inspired movements to eliminate excessive bail and end lengthy delays in bringing cases to trial. Further, his death showcased the need to provide mental health services not only for prisoners while held in jail, but also to those who have been released after spending time in solitary confinement.
Attorneys Scott Rynecki and Sanford A. Rubenstein represented Browder’s family in the wrongful death lawsuit filed in state Supreme Court in the Bronx.
“The family believes the settlement is fair and reasonable,” Rubenstein said during a press conference. “But they hope that his memory will be honored with the reforms that still have to take place within our prison system.”
Sources: npr.org, nytimes.com, reason.com, CNN
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