The city of New York has agreed to a $3.3 million settlement with the family of Kalief Browder, who spent three years at Rikers Island prison without being convicted of a crime and killed himself in 2015 at the age of 22. In 2010, at the age of 16, Browder was accused of the theft of a backpack and its contents including a camera, $700, a credit card, and an iPod Touch. He always maintained his innocence and while awaiting trial, Browder was held on Rikers Island for three years, spending 800 days of that time in solitary confinement. When not in solitary, Kalief was repeatedly assaulted by guards and other prisoners.
Browder was imprisoned at the Robert N. Davoren Center (R.N.D.C) on Riker’s Island. The United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara has said that the R.N.D.C. had a “deep-seated culture of violence” where inmates suffered “broken jaws, broken orbital bones, broken noses, long bone fractures, and lacerations requiring stitches.” Browder was frequently a victim of prison violence by other inmates and guards while there. On one occasion, he and other inmates were lined up against a wall because correction officers wanted to find the instigator of a prison fight. Browder and the inmates were punched, one by one. Browder said, “Their noses were leaking, their faces were bloody, their eyes were swollen.” The guards threatened the inmates with solitary confinement if they reported their injuries. In a separate incident, on September 23, 2012, a film of Browder in handcuffs being assaulted by guards was recorded. Browder attempted suicide twice while imprisoned.
Browder maintained his innocence and refused plea bargain deals over the time he was incarcerated. He was finally released in May 2013 when the prosecutor’s case was found to be lacking any evidence against Browder and the case’s main witness had left the United States. After his release, Browder and his brother, Akeem, sought legal representation with Brooklyn prosecutor, Paul V. Prestia. In November 2013, Browder filed a lawsuit against the New York Police Department, the Bronx District Attorney, and the Department of Corrections citing malicious prosecution among other charges.
Soon after his release, Browder also earned his GED and enrolled at Bronx Community College where he also worked as a tutor in mathematics for the G.E.D. exam. Despite his efforts and dreams of success, his mental health issues persisted. He said, “People tell me because I have this case against the city I’m all right. But I’m not all right. I’m messed up. I know that I might see some money from this case, but that’s not going to help me mentally. I’m mentally scarred right now. That’s how I feel. Because there are certain things that changed about me and they might not go back. Before I went to jail, I didn’t know about a lot of stuff, and, now that I’m aware, I’m paranoid. I feel like I was robbed of my happiness.”
In November 2013, Browder made a suicide attempt and was admitted to the psychiatric ward of St. Barnabas Hospital, the first of three admissions to the ward. In June 2015, two years following his release from prison, Browder died by suicide, hanging himself from an air conditioning unit outside of his mother’s home. Browder’s supporters say his suicide was the result of mental and physical abuse sustained in prison. Browder’s case has been cited by activists calling for the reform of the New York City criminal justice system and brought attention to the abuse at Riker’s Island. In 2014, Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York took action against the City of New York for its use of “unnecessary and excessive force” on adolescents in Riker’s Island. In January 2015, the New York City Council voted unanimously to end solitary confinement for inmates under the age of 21. Kalief’s story also led New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to pledge in 2017 to close the Rikers Island jail—in 10 years’ time.