A 16-year-old spent three years on Rikers Island, without trial, after he was unjustly accused of stealing a backpack. His experience inside of New York’s infamous prison has been documented in a new piece published in The New Yorker.
In “Before the Law,” Jennifer Gonnerman tells the story of Kalief Browder who was arrested in 2010 in The Bronx after a man accused him of robbery a few weeks earlier.
According to the article, Browder was held on bail set at $3,000, an amount that his family couldn’t afford. The “ready rule” of New York State requires that all felony cases, except homicides, must be ready for trial within six months of charges filed, or else charges can simply be dropped. But in practice, this time limit is subject to technicalities.
For the next three years, Browder, who maintained his innocence and was assigned an attorney, had about thirty court dates.
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His case was repeatedly delayed, but on May 29, 2013, Browder, who had missed his junior and senior years of high school, was finally released. The case was dismissed due to lack of evidence.
During his time at Rikers’ Robert N. Davoren Complex, Browder spent a lengthy period of time in solitary confinement, a juvenile imprisonment practice that the city has now banned, according to Gothamist. He also became suicidal, but has been given psychiatric help and had a difficult time finding a job since his release. Read an excerpt of The New Yorker story below:
Browder’s brother reconsidered his advice when he saw him in the Bing visiting area. For one thing, he says, Browder was losing weight. “Several times when I visited him, he said, ‘They’re not feeding me,’ ” the brother told me. “He definitely looked really skinny.” In solitary, food arrived through a slot in the cell door three times a day. For a growing teen-ager, the portions were never big enough, and in solitary Browder couldn’t supplement the rations with snacks bought at the commissary. He took to begging the officers for leftovers: “Can I get that bread?” Sometimes they would slip him an extra slice or two; often, they refused.
Browder’s brother also noticed a growing tendency toward despair. When Browder talked about his case, he was “strong, adamant: ‘No, they can’t do this to me!’ ” But, when the conversation turned to life in jail, “it’s a totally different personality, which is depressed. He’s, like, ‘I don’t know how long I can take this.’ ”
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Browder got out of the Bing in the fall of 2011, but by the end of the year he was back—after yet another fight, he says. On the night of February 8, 2012—his six-hundred-and-thirty-fourth day on Rikers—he said to himself, “I can’t take it anymore. I give up.” That night, he tore his bedsheet into strips, tied them together to make a noose, attached it to the light fixture, and tried to hang himself. He was taken to the clinic, then returned to solitary. Browder told me that his sheets, magazines, and clothes were removed—everything except his white plastic bucket.
On February 17th, he was shuttled to the courthouse once again, but this time he was not brought up from the court pen in time to hear his case called. (“I’ll waive his appearance for today’s purposes,” his lawyer told the judge.) For more than a year, he had heard various excuses about why his trial had to be delayed, among them that the prosecutor assigned to the case was on trial elsewhere, was on jury duty, or, as he once told the judge, had “conflicts in my schedule.” If Browder had been in the courtroom on this day, he would have heard a prosecutor offer a new excuse: “Your Honor, the assigned assistant is currently on vacation.” The prosecutor asked for a five-day adjournment; Browder’s lawyer requested March 16th, and the judge scheduled the next court date for then.
The following night, in his solitary cell on Rikers, Browder shattered his plastic bucket by stomping on it, then picked up a piece, sharpened it, and began sawing his wrist. He was stopped after an officer saw him through the cell window and intervened.
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