So begins the tragic story of Kalief Browder, a sixteen year old who was incarcerated with no trial-- only an allegation that sent him to Riker's Island, New York's main jail center and ranked one of the most violent prison centers in the country.
Kalief Browder. A boy with a troubled past but bright future. We're going to fast forward to the incident that has activists calling for reforms of the New York criminal justice system.
Robert Bautiso accused 16 year old Browder of stealing a backpack containing valuable items such as a camera and a credit card. The police officers who stopped Browder and his friend in order to search their belongings, could not find any of the reported stolen items. Yet the officers arrested Browder and his friends anyway even though Bautiso kept changing his statement regarding the date/time of the robbery. Several hours late, while Browder's friend was sent home, Browder remained due to his shaky record with the police. He was brought into the Bronx Country Criminal Court where he was interrogated by a police officer and prosecutor. But Browder stood his ground and maintained his innocence. He kept telling his public defender, Brenden O'Meara, he was innocent. That, unfortunately, did little to persuade the judge. Without any sort of evidence to prove Browder committed the crime, he was sent to Riker's island where he endured several beatings, starved and tortured by inmates and prison guards. Browder's family was unable to pay the 3,000 dollar bail and just like that Kalief Browder was gone.
That was only the beginning.
The three years Browder spent in Riker Prison was three years of constant pain. The 16 year old was serving time for a crime he never commited in a prison center that is known to detain people who were never actually convicted of a crime. The guards at Riker beat the teenage inmates then later threatened solitary confinement if they were to report the incident or go to the clinic for medical attention. Through intimidation the guards ruled with an iron fist at Rikers. Browder himself was subject to abuse by both officers and angry inmates. "In a security footage acquired by the New Yorker of Rikers Island, Browder is seen slammed into the wall by a guard while he was handcuffed on September 23, 2012. The guard then proceeded to tackle Browder to the ground and two other guards joined shortly after." Despite pleading with his lawyer that he wanted to "go to trial". O'Meara never visited Browder in Rikers. This lack of communication between attorney and defendant cost Browder three years of his teenage life. The correction officers often sent Browder to solitary confinement where he had to beg for food and first attempted to commit suicide. Browder constructed a noose out of bedsheets, just when he was about to jump, a guard egged him to "go ahead and jump". Browder didn't jump because he was "scared of dying". But that wouldn't be the first time he attempted to take his life.
As for his trial status, the overwhelming nature of cases in the Bronx made it difficult for the prosecutor and defendant to be ready for trial. Mainly the prosecutor kept requesting for one more day which then led to weeks. This continuous game of trial tag lasted for the rest of the year so Browder had to suffer through another miserable year at Riker's. However, that did not stop Browder from asking his attorney this question: "Can you get me out?"
Prosecutors offered Browder plea bargains which ensured a set number of years in prison then freedom-- but only if Browder admitted he was guilty. Browder rejected any deal that would require him to give up his innocence, something he silently fought to prove. At this time, Browder had been imprisoned for 961 days and had seen 8 judges. With not luck, the trial was "not ready" to come into motion so Browder was stuck in a prison where he did not belong like a boat stuck on a beautiful, sunny day when all it wants to do is sail free.
Finally, one judge offered Browder to plea guilty which would allow him to immediately return home. But, Browder politely declined because he was adamant of proving his innocence. Whether it was a stroke of luck or a miracle the man who had originally accused Browder of stealing a backpack had returned to Mexico. Since the prosecutor's on the case no longer had a witness, the case was dropped and Browder was sent home. Browder is now 20 years old.
Browder may physically be free but his mind will be forever trapped. He was mentally scarred from all the abuse he faced at Rikers from the officers and inmates. Coming home was supposed to be a moment of happiness but instead it was filled with paranoia. Browder no longer engaged in his previous hobbies such as playing video games and playing basketball. He rather felt it necessary to lock himself up in his room and pace back and forth, just like he did back in solitary confinement. Browder separated himself from any social interaction since he anxious being people who looked at him like he wasn't worth anything. Ultimately, Browder had been robbed of his happiness. He was given paranoia and anxiety which resulted in another suicide attempt and being admitted to a psychiatric ward (on three separate occasions).
Browder and his brother were seeking justice from the New York City criminal system, but they were turned down by 11 attorneys. Eventually they were introduced to Paul V Prestia, a prosecutor in Brooklyn who helped them in their fight for justice. Several others joined Browder, his brother and Prestia in this fight-- Preet Bharar (then United States Attorney for South District of New York) revealed plans to sue New York City for the "unnesscary and excessive forced used on adolescence in Rikers Island".
In January 2015, New York City lawmakers voted to end solitary confinement for inmates under the age of 21.
Browder began telling his story to famous celebrities like Rosie O'Donnell and Jay Z (Jay Z who would later produce a documentary about the injustice Browder and other inmates face at Rikers). However, it was difficult for Browder to relive the terrible experiences he faced in the Prison so he was very private about his media presence.
It was insanely hard for Browder to pretend everything was alright, that he could just go about living life again. Paranoia leered over Browder like a dark cloud never leaving him. "He had thrown out his television because he said he feared it was watching him" said journalist Jennifer Gonnerman from the New Yorker.
Kalief Browder was 22 years old when he commited suicide.
I admit that this blog does not serve Browder much justice. There is so much more to his story that I failed to mention. So, I encourage those who took the time to read a little about Kalief Browder's story to click on the following links to get more information on what activists are doing in New York to fight for Kalief and all those who were failed by New York City's criminal Justice system.
I wish to conclude this blog by reminding everybody- no matter your gender identity, sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, religion, culture, political affiliations and opinions and mental health state- you all have rights. We all have a voice. Let's be the future you and I can be proud of and get Kalief Browder the justice he deserved.