A New York City Corrections van carrying

Source: NICHOLAS KAMM / Getty

When 22-year-old Kalief Browder took his life, New York City heaved.

Browder spent three years on Rikers Island, the infamous New York City jail where he experienced  documented torture, including brutal attacks, constant confinement to a 6 foot by 8 foot cell, and even starvation. On June 7, the 22-year-old hung himself with an air conditioning cord in his mother’s house, gifting critics of the facility a sweet-faced innocent whose tragic death demanded action.

Kalief, his name lyrical, now a mournful dirge, was sent to Rikers Island when he was a high school sophomore after being accused of taking a backpack in May 2010. New York is only one of only two states in the U.S. that automatically charges 16 and 17-year-olds as adults. After he was arrested, Browder was charged with robbery, grand larceny, and assault, and because he was on probation for taking a delivery truck for a joy ride, shipped to the 400-acre facility between The Bronx and Queens.

Browder’s family could not afford his $3,000 bail, and so the 16-year-old spent more than three years at the sprawling jail complex without a trial, suffering relentless violence at both the hands of guards and inmates — some of the beatings captured on video.

Two of those years Kalief spent in solitary confinement, which has been proven to trigger psychotic breaks and suicidal thoughts. In fact, The New Yorker reports that in February 2012, Kalief ripped his bedsheet into strips and tried to hang himself from the light fixture in his cell. His lawyer maintains that before he went to Rikers, the teen had no mental health problems.

“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,” Browder’s attorney Paul V. Prestia said in an interview with the LA Times.


Rikers—made infamous by rap songs throughout the ’90s—had already been in the news in the months preceding Browder’s self-murder, for everything from prisoner deaths, to the conviction of guards for violence against inmates, to the indictment of jail union bosses, to a damning federal investigation that required sweeping reforms. As a microcosm, Rikers stands as a symbol of all that is wrong with the criminal justice system in America – and how young men of color are literally destroyed by it.

Glenn Martin, the founder of Just Leadership USA, a Harlem-based organization that empowers the formerly incarcerated around policy reform, says that we are all responsible for places like Rikers, where young men like Kalief Browder slip through the cracks.

“Jail systems like this exist because people believe in them, because the citizens of New York have decided that this is how we are going to respond to crime,” says Martin. “When you think about stop-and-frisk in New York, we got to the point where there were 800,000 young people, particularly people of color, who were being stopped, and many of them ended up in that facility.”

Read the rest at NewsOne.


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