Grave injustice

Mother of Kalief Browder: the judicial system is “the reason my son is dead”

Venida Browder, whose son endured three horrific years on Rikers Island while awaiting trial, wants the city of New York to accept culpability for his suicide

Before he was arrested for a crime he did not commit, before he was held on Rikers Island for three years, before he was systematically abused by inmates and corrections officers, Kalief Browder was a typical, happy teenager.

Kalief was just a normal kid,” his mother, Venida Browder, said during Tina Brown Live Media’s American Justice Summit panel titled “Kalief, My Beloved Son.” Browder was joined on stage by Paul Prestia, her civil rights attorney, and panel moderator Juju Chang.

“[He liked] playing pranks, video games, Yu-Gi-Oh!” Browder continued. “Just normal stuff.”

A demonstrator holds a photo of Kalief Browder during a candlelight vigil outside the entrance to the Rikers Island. (REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)

A demonstrator holds a photo of Kalief Browder during a candlelight vigil outside the entrance to the Rikers Island. (REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)

On May 10, 2010, when he was just 16 years old, Kalief’s life devolved into a Kafka-esque nightmare. Kalief was pulled over and arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack. He insisted that he had not committed any crime, and upon searching him, police could not recover any stolen objects. But Kalief was nevertheless transferred to Central Booking at the Bronx County Criminal Court, and because his parents could not afford his $3,000 bail, he was sent to Rikers Island to await trial.

Kalief ended up spending more than 1000 days on Rikers — 800 of them in solitary confinement — waiting to prove his innocence in court. That day never came. His trial was pushed back 31 times over the course of three years, and by the end of 2012, Kalief had stood before eight different judges.

“It was a reckless disregard by this District Attorney’s office to prosecute Kalief,” Prestia said. “The incredible thing about [Kalief’s] case is that this wasn’t a complex case. It was a very simple case, something that a first year prosecutor could have brought to court.”

Kalief was offered several plea deals — including one that would have allowed him to leave prison immediately — but refused to accept any of them.

“He didn’t do it and he stood his ground,” Mrs. Browder said. “He wanted a trial to prove his innocence. He was a determined person, and if he felt he was right, he was going to fight for it.”

Chang then referenced the “barbaric conditions” that Kalief endured at Rikers while he was awaiting trial. That’s an understatement,” Prestia noted. “It was starvation by the guards, it was beating by the guards. It amounted to torture.”

During his three years at Rikers, Kalief was subjected to an incessant stream of physical and mental abuse: hundreds of days in solitary, food deprivation, no educational support, no psychiatric support, beatings by both guards and inmates. Two such incidents were captured on camera. In one, Kalief is attacked by a guard, seemingly without provocation, while waiting to be taken to the showers. In another, he is beaten by a gang of inmates as corrections officers struggle to shield him from the blows. Traumatized by the abuse, Kalief attempted suicide several times.

And then suddenly, it was over. On May 29, 2013, during the 31st court date pertaining to his case, a judge informed Kalief that the case against him had been dismissed and all charges had been dropped. That night he was released from Rikers, given a metrocard, and sent home.

In October 2014, Jennifer Gonnerman wrote about Kalief’s tragic, terrible story for The New Yorker. Almost instantly, he became a symbol of America’s fractured justice system. He appeared on The View, and was given a laptop by Rosie O’Donnell. When Mayor de Blasio abolished solitary confinement for youths under the age of 18, he said that Kalief’s plight inspired the initiative. Senator Rand Paul spoke about him in campaign speeches.

Back at home, Kalief seemed to be patching his life together, making up for the years that had been stolen from him. He took his GED test, and passed it. He got a part-time job. He enrolled in Bronx Community College. But on the inside, Kalief was crumbling.

“It was Kalief, but it wasn’t Kalief,” Browder said. “He was just a different person. He was sad, in a dark place … The smiles disappeared.”

Uneasy around people, Kalief would lock himself in his bedroom for several hours every day. He would pace along the four corners of his driveway, unable to shake the habit he had picked up in solitary. He became afraid of getting attacked on the subway, and threw out his television because he thought it was watching him. During Christmas of 2014, he was hospitalized in the psychiatric ward at Harlem Hospital Center.

“I was at a loss as to what to do,” Browder said. “I didn’t know how to really help him, because he became very paranoid, really paranoid.”

On June 5, 2015, at the age of 22, Kalief committed suicide. His mother found him hanging from a cord outside his window.

Flowers rest on top of pictures of Kalief Browder in New York June 11, 2015. (REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)

Flowers rest on top of pictures of Kalief Browder in New York June 11, 2015. (REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)

Kalief’s family has brought two lawsuits against the city of New York. The first alleges false arrest, malicious prosecution, and civil rights violations—including torture—while Kalief was in Rikers. The second is a wrongful death suit, which claims that city institutions drove Kalief to suicide by arresting him, holding him at Rikers, and failing to provide mental health support during his incarceration and after his release.

“We’re not only alleging that it was the city of New York and its agencies that caused his death,” Prestia explained. “[When] they released him, he had three more [psychiatric] setbacks. … Even despite that, he was released from hospital with minimal psychiatric care.”

Shortly after Kalief committed suicide, the New York State Senate passed legislation called “Kalief’s Law,” which closed a loophole that allowed the justice system to delay a defendant’s trial. And just a few days ago, President Obama mentioned Kalief when announcing his ban on the practice of placing juveniles in solitary confinement in federal prisons. To Browder, these measures are well and good, but not enough. As of yet, no institution has accepted culpability for what happened to Kalief.

“This city won’t acknowledge it,” Browder said. “Rikers, NYPD, the judicial system— all three of them had a part in my sons death, and none of them have come forward to take the blame.”

“What is justice for you and Kalief?” Chang asked Browder.

“Letting them admit that they’re the reason my son is dead,” she replied. “If he had never … been snatched off the street on a flimsy case that had never happened, he would be here now.”

Additional reporting by Abbie Hurewitz

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *