Kalief Browder was held for three years at New York City’s main jail complex, Rikers Island, awaiting trial. He was accused of stealing a backpack when he was 16.
Although he was eventually released, Browder, at the age of 22, killed himself. The suicide occurred on Saturday. The night prior to his death, Browder reportedly told his mother: "Man, I can't take it anymore."
In a room packed with Browder’s family, his attorney, Paul V. Prestia, said, “This case is bigger than Michael Brown!” In Brown’s case, he was unarmed when he was shot by a police officer, but there were conflicting stories about the incident.
Prestia said the shooting of Brown took “one minute in time,” but in regards to his former client, Browder’s case, Prestia said: “When you go over the three years that he spent (in jail) and all the horrific details he endured, it’s unbelievable that this could happen to a teenager in New York City.
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"He didn’t get tortured in some prison camp in another country," he added. "It was right here!”
Browder was the subject of a profile in The New Yorker. Browder had been walking through the Bronx with his friend when the two were arrested on a robbery charge. Browder maintained his innocence throughout the investigation. He was taken to Rikers Island, a 400-acre island in the East River with 10 separate jails.
Although the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees “the right to a speedy and public trial,” Browder spent three years at the prison without a trial. He told The New Yorker of the many instances in which he was abused and beaten at the prison, sometimes at the hands of other inmates, other times as a victim of the guards' brutality.
Browder spent more than 400 days in solitary confinement, reported NPR. After 634 days on the island, Browder unsuccessfully attempted to kill himself.
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After 31 court appearances, Judge Patricia M. DiMango told Browder, “The District Attorney is really in a position right now where they cannot proceed.”
“It is their intention to dismiss the case," she added.
After his release, Browder went to Prestia, who later filed a suit against the New York Police Department, the Bronx District Attorney and the New York City Department of Corrections.
Browder developed mental health problems while in prison.
“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,” Prestia said in a phone interview with The Los Angeles Times. “Being starved, and not being taken to the shower for two weeks at a time ... those were direct contributing factors.”
Jennifer Gonnerman, the author of Browder's New Yorker profile, visited the family following the suicide.
She reported of the incident:
[On Saturday afteroon], at about 12:15 P.M., he went into another bedroom, pulled out the air conditioner, and pushed himself out through the hole in the wall, feet first, with a cord wrapped around his neck. His mother was the only other person home at the time. After she heard a loud thumping noise upstairs, she went upstairs to investigate, but couldn't figure out what had happened. It wasn't until she went outside to the backyard and looked up that she realized that her youngest child had hanged himself.
Rikers Island is notoriously dangerous, and its reform is on the top of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s agenda. Violence and smuggling of drugs and weapons by guards, visitors and inmates are considered pervasive problems there, reported The New York Times. Joseph Ponte, the New York City corrections commissioner, said that reforming the prison would be a “long, heavy lift here.”