*Kalief Browder, the young man who had gained national attention as a symbol of America’s broken criminal justice system, took his own life this weekend, according to a report from The New Yorker. He was 22.
Browder was 16 years old in 2010 when he was sent to New York’s notorious Rikers Island jail on a robbery charge that was ultimately dismissed – but not before he served three years at the facility, despite not having been convicted of a crime.
When he wasn’t in solitary confinement — where he spent an accumulated two years — he faced unspeakable violence at the hands of guards and fellow inmates.
Browder was initially arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack. The following day, he maintained his innocence, but his family was unable to pay his $3,000 bail, so he was brought to Rikers Island in New York’s East River.
He spent three years there on an increased $10,000 bail. He told the New Yorker’s Jennifer Gonnerman in a October 2014 interview that while there, he encountered beatings from officers and inmates, spent hundreds of days in solitary confinement and had attempted suicide more than once.
His long, unspeakable ordeal came to a tragic end on Saturday. Gonnerman reported that Browder hanged himself with an air conditioning cord at his family’s home in the Bronx. She told The Huffington Post Monday that Browder’s family was in a “state of shock.”
“They were angry and confused about why Kalief was gone,” she said.
Gonnerman, who’d spent a great deal of time with Browder, remembered him as an “intelligent, perceptive young man who was trying to do the right thing. All he wanted to do was have a normal life… but he never really got that chance.”
What happened to Browder and his family, said Gonnerman, is an “American tragedy almost beyond words.”
In a New Yorker piece announcing Browder’s death, Gonnerman noted that Browder’s lawyer, Paul Prestia, had told Browder’s family that “this case is bigger than Michael Brown” — a reference to the unarmed black teen fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer. Brown’s death set off massive protests across the country.
“When you go over the three years that [Browder] spent [in jail] and all the horrific details he endured, it’s unbelievable that this could happen to a teenager in New York City,” Prestia said hours after Browder’s death, according to The New Yorker. “He didn’t get tortured in some prison camp in another country. It was right here!”
When reached for comment Monday, the New York City Department of Correction said it would release a statement on Browder’s death later that day.
In a 2013 interview with The Huffington Post (watch below), Browder recalled how he’d once ripped the sheets off the bed in his jail cell and fashioned them into a noose. Just as he was about to hang himself, he said, guards stormed into the cell, tackled him to the bed and punched him repeatedly.
As punishment for the suicide attempt, Browder said guards “starved” him for up to four meals at a time. Browder would try another four or five times to take his own life during his stay at Rikers.
“Prior to going to jail, I never had any mental illnesses,” Browder told HLN in 2013. “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.”
A horrifying report from the U.S. Department of Justice last year described the “rampant use of unnecessary and excessive force” by guards against teenage inmates on Rikers. The report also detailed how the adolescent inmate facility, where Browder was kept, was “more inspired” by the William Golding novel Lord of the Flies than by “any legitimate philosophy of humane detention.”
Surveillance footage obtained by Gonnerman earlier this year shows Browder being beaten by a guard and assaulted by a large group of inmates.
Below, Browder’s Dec. 2013 interview with HuffPost Live:
HBO’s John Oliver did a segment titled “Bail” on Sunday’s broadcast of “Last Week Tonight” that points out the lunacy of America’s bail system.