Kalief Browder suicide a call to action against U.S. justice system

Kalief Browder took his own life, but the U.S. criminal justice system destroyed it first, according to civil-liberties groups reacting to the 22-year-old former inmate's suicide.

Rikers inmate, arrested at 16, endured beatings, solitary confinement before his name was cleared

Kalief Browder, seen in an interview with ABC, was 16 when he was arrested for petty theft. He became the face of America's troubled prison system, after a report in The New Yorker recounted the mental and physical abuse he suffered while behind bars at Rikers Island. He killed himself Saturday. (ABC News)

​Kalief Browder took his own life; the U.S. criminal justice system destroyed it.

That was the grim takeaway by civil-liberties groups following news that the 22-year-old Bronx man killed himself last Saturday.

"Kalief Browder is a casualty. A predictable casualty of our failed criminal justice policies," said Donna Lieberman, director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

"This case is an example of the horrors of solitary confinement, of how dysfunctional our bail system is. It reflects the totality of a system that's profoundly broken."

Browder was just 16 when he was arrested for petty theft, only to have the case dismissed three years later. He became the face of America's troubled prison system last fall, after a report in The New Yorker recounted the mental and physical abuse he suffered as a teen while behind bars at Rikers Island.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tours a Rikers Island jail cell. In April, he announced a plan to reduce inmate populations at Rikers by expediting city court proceedings. (Reuters)

Upon his release in June 2013, a lawsuit he filed against New York City, the police and correctional officers tallied up his wasted years: More than 1,000 days spent in Rikers, 400 of them in isolation.

Browder, who never had mental problems before his incarceration, attempted suicide six times at the notorious New York City jail complex.

Through it all, he never went to trial for what he was ultimately cleared of — the alleged snatching of a book bag.

Lieberman learned of Browder's death when a colleague emailed her this week. She was outraged. The former inmate barely stood a chance, she thought.

"There are so many other wrongdoers who are responsible for the destruction of Kalief Browder's life," she said, blaming the district attorney and the court system for playing "fast and loose" with scheduling a trial to evade their obligation to give the former inmate his day in court.

The DA's office put off approximately 30 court dates, using technicalities to stretch what should have been a six-month wait for a trial into a three-year delay, according to Browder's lawyer.

"It's important that their complicity in destroying his life be recognized," Lieberman says.

A stacked deck

The deck may have been stacked against Browder in other ways, too.

Black men 18 and 19 years old are nine times more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts, according to Amnesty International.

"Kalief's case tragically represents the intersection of so many issues that plague our justice system," said Jasmine Heiss, senior campaigner for individuals at risk with Amnesty International.

She cited a lack of due process, "egregiously high" bail for such a minor offence, and "cruel and inhumane treatment by authorities that potentially amounts to torture."

The circumstances that led to Browder boarding a bus in 2010 towards one of the most infamous detention facilities in the state "represents the way in which access to justice can be denied based on factors such as race, class and identity," Heiss said.

In Browder's case, the $3,000 bail set for his release was too much for his family to afford.

Punished for poverty

"It's a situation where [inmates] aren't being punished for a crime; they're being punished for their poverty," said Jean Casella, co-founder of the inmates advocacy group Solitary Watch.

Against a judge's advice, Browder also refused to admit to an alleged theft he insisted he had not committed. 

"[A judge] is not gonna make me say I did something just so I can go home," he told ABC News in a 2013 interview. "If I gotta stay here five more months just to prove that I'm innocent, then so be it."

That underscores another "deep flaw" in America's criminal justice system: "the pressure to plea bargain" just to get out of the system, she said.

There's no way of knowing whether an earlier release may have saved Browder, however.

Even after he walked free in 2013, the preceding three years of solitary confinement, starvation and beatings by prison gang members and guards stayed with him.

Browder reportedly continued to simulate his conditions from solitary in his bedroom.

'A tragic, terrible story'

The weight of his trauma at Rikers apparently became too much to bear last weekend, when he pulled out an air conditioning unit, fashioned a noose with the cord and hanged himself at his family's Bronx home. 

"An awful end to a tragic, terrible story," Casella said. "He was a kid. They had him in solitary. That has serious effects on people when they're in prison. There's psychosis, depression, anxiety."

Some inmates develop "SHU Syndrome," Casella said. It's named after the "special housing units" which, in some facilities, lack windows to the outside world and take up about the area of a parking space.

Activists are mindful that Browder's ordeal is only one of many similar cases.

An April analysis by the New York Times estimates 1.5 million black men are "missing" in America today, most of them removed from everyday life due to early deaths or incarceration.

"Kalief Browder now joins the 1.5 million," Lieberman said.

An 'inhumane' system

It's an "inhumane" system, she says, particularly for New York, which "thinks of itself as a progressive community."

In January, Rikers ended the practice of solitary confinement of inmates 21 and younger.

In April, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to gradually reduce inmate populations at Rikers by expediting city court proceedings so inmates won't experience the same kinds of delays that kept Browder locked up for years.

​Those changes came too late for Browder, however. By the time he was 21 and a free man, he still felt like a prisoner, he said in a 2013 ABC News interview.

That was time he would never get back.

"I lost my childhood. I lost my happiness," he said.

"It's just heartbreaking. I felt like they was just playing with my life."


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.