Kalief Browder, Teenager Wrongfully Imprisoned and Tortured at Rikers Island, Commits Suicide

In 2013, after spending years behind bars in the notorious New York torture chamber known as Rikers Island without ever having been convicted of a crime, then 19 year-old Kalief Browder finally was allowed to return to his family and loved ones. However, those who had known the 16 year-old young man before he was tragically apprehended by an NYPD officer in 2010 (all because he erroneously thought Browder took someone’s backpack) quickly found that he had been profoundly damaged by his traumatic experiences on the island. As was reported on this blog in 2013,

While he was at Rikers, Browder was regularly “physically assaulted and beaten” by the corrections staff as well as other inmates, and as punishment for maintaining his innocence he was “placed in solitary confinement for more than 400 days” where those in charge attempted to starve him by refusing him up to 4 meals at a time. They also would not allow him to complete his high school education, even though he would have been working toward his high school graduation had he not been so heartlessly locked behind bars. He spent many sorrowful nights crying his self to sleep, eventually leading him to try and take his own life on more than one occasion. The reality of being trapped in a living hell on earth all the while being at the mercy of the monsters employed at the Rikers Island Corrections Facility would certainly drive most people to such a point of despair. What’s worse is that he had no way of knowing when, if ever, he was going to be released and allowed to return to his family. I did not mince words when I referred to the security staff as “monsters”, for what else would you call people who respond to inmate suicide attempts by assaulting and beating them even further as a way of “punishing” them?

Browder’s family, despite their best efforts, were unable to come up with the $10,000 to bond Kalief out of jail, which is why he was initially transferred to Rikers, a place where young people are regularly subject to long periods of solitary confinement, sexual harassment, brutal beatings and gang violence often initiated by the “correctional” officers themselves! In 2013 Browder told ABC News, “It’s very hard when you are dealing with dudes that are big and have weapons and shanks and there are gangs. You know if you… don’t give them what they want you know they are going to jump you. And it’s very scary.” After his release he suffered through multiple suicide attempts, placement in psychiatric wards, and severe bouts of restlessness, paranoia and depression. Yet through it all he managed to become an advocate and spokesperson for others living under the same circumstances.

On Friday, June 5, 2015, Kalief Browder’s mother received a phone call from her distraught son, who seemed to be constantly reliving the traumatizing years of his not-so-distant past over and again in his head, in which he told her, “Ma, I can’t take it anymore.” The following day he was found hanging in his bedroom.


17 thoughts

  1. This brought tears to my eyes. How capriciously and with such severe apathy do officers and the legal system wield their power never taking into account the individual lives that are at stake. Smh.

    Another worthy story you captured Caleb. RESPECT.

    1. Man as you know American society has no respect or concern for the dispossessed and nonprivileged, especially people who are labeled “criminals” by the penal system regardless of whether they did anything criminal or not (in Browder’s case he was never even convicted of a crime!) Kind of off topic, but think about the way everyone always laughs at prison rape jokes, as if someone being raped is somehow funny. There is no one else in society other than the incarcerated that people would ever tolerate jokes being made about their rape and torture.

  2. Post traumatic stress disorder and depression are treatable. Not only was Kalief unjustly confined, but it also sounds like the mental health system let him down. If he had a known history of depression and suicide ideation, he should have been in the hospital.

    1. That may be true, but I believe that what he experienced was so traumatic that it probably changed him so profoundly regardless of whether he had a prior history of depression or not.

      1. I’m trying to rap my head around why a 16 year old boy would have been to rikers, and why for a backpack of all things when it couldn’t be proven. The injustice…

  3. Caleb – I thank you for the compassionate approach you take in writing about this in ways that connect the dots of how injustices visited upon low-income families can result in tragic outcomes. I hope more people realize the mental health effects of being wrongfully accused and that incarceration can be damaging. There can be irreversible and severe harm experienced by many young people jailed for non-violent offenses and false accusations. I feel sad for what Kalief Browder must have endured while locked up. My sympathy to his family for their loss of a loved one.

    1. This is a tragedy beyond words, and Browder’s case is unfortunately not incredibly unique. This is truly an “only in America” story, considering it is only the U.S. with such a massive incarceration rate. America is truly the world’s prison capital.

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