The Boy Who Lost his Life for Not Stealing a Rucksack
Kalief Browder sent to Rikers for three years at the age of sixteen.
Kalief Browder was a happy teenager, returning from a party. He was stopped by two policemen and arrested on suspicion of stealing a rucksack. Known as peanut to his friends, he was the youngest of seven children. Before entering Rikers, Browder was described, by his teachers, as a fun guy.
He never stood trial but was held for three years at New York Cities, Rikers Island. Rikers a notorious hard prison, where gangs run the halls rather than officers. Two of these three years, Browder spent in solitary confinement.
Once the case was dropped, it appeared this young man had started to put his life back in order. He had gained the equivalent of a high school diploma and started community college. However, he could never overcome the abuse and torture inflicted on him. In June 2015 he took his own life at his parent’s house.
Jennifer Gonnerman who interviewed him stated he never recovered from 23 hours a day in solitary. He almost recreated the conditions himself, shutting himself in his bedroom for hours.
Mayor Blasio stated, his death was a reminder we must continue to work each day to provide mental health services in New York.
However, the case of Browder’s death goes much deeper than a failing in mental health. To understand this we need to examine why a sixteen-year-old was incarcerated for three years on suspicion of stealing a rucksack.
On May 15th 2010, ten days before his 17th birthday Browder was walking home with a friend from a party. As they passed 186th street in the Bronx they saw a police car driving towards them. More squad cars quickly joined the first. The police got out of the car and shone their lights into the young boys’ faces. Officers stated that a man had just reported they had robbed him. Browder stated he hadn’t robbed anyone and gave the police permission to check his pockets.
When the search was conducted, nothing suspicious was found on either of the boys. Police then returned to the squad car where the victim was. According to Browder they then returned with a new story, the witness had stated they robbed him two weeks earlier. At which point the teens were arrested and taken to 48th precinct.
Browder asked why he was being arrested? An officer replied they were going to the precinct to clear things up and he would go home after.
Once at the precinct he was fingerprinted and placed in a holding cell. Seventeen hours after his arrest he was interrogated, where he maintained his innocence. A few hours later his cell was unlocked, Browder thought he was going home. Instead, he was taken to central booking at Bronx County Criminal Court. He was held on suspicion of robbery grand larceny and assault. Bail was set at $3000 an amount far out of reach go the Browder family.
Browder had been in trouble with the police once before. When his father walked out on the family, he looked for solace where he could. Joining with a gang for a couple of months he was present when the group took a bread van for a joyride. He had accepted the charge and was placed on probation. It was this charge that would mean that when the family raised the bail money, he was still not eligible for release.
Browder went to Robert N Davoren Centre where the adolescents were held at Rikers. The centre had six hundred boys aged between 16–18. Conditions there were notoriously grim. A report in August 2014 stated — ‘ a deep-seated culture of violence.’ Inmates talk about being part of The Program, if you were not part of this gang then you were brutalised. Not only were inmates part of this ‘Program’ but officers also. Browder had learnt his lesson on gangs, from his earlier troubles, he refused to be drawn in. It was a decision which would cause him great harm in Rikers.
When he moved to his first dorm he failed to make friends. He stated that all the other inmates wanted to talk about was crime and girls, he kept himself to himself. His mum, trying to make life easier for him would visit weekly. She would bring him fresh clothes and money for snacks. This made him a target. To protect his belongings he took to sleeping with his head off his bed on the bucket that held his possessions.
This was one example of the abuse that was inflicted on him. He told many other stories of altercations he had whilst there.
Shortly after his arrival, he spent the first, two weeks in solitary, it was the first of many visits.
He was throwing shoes at people — I told him to stop. I actually took his sneaker and I threw it and he got mad. He swung at me, and we started fighting. — Browder
Browder was placed in shackles and transferred to segregation, or as the inmates called it The Bing. Named the bing after the fact your brain goes bing after you spend too much time there.
Daniel Selling who worked as the executive director of mental health for New York jails commented that
It’s a way to control an environment that feels out of control — lock people in their cell. Adolescents can’t handle it. Nobody can handle it.
Whilst in solitary Browder was on basic rations. As a growing teenager, he couldn’t substitute his food with snacks. He started to lose a lot of weight. He reported that the rations were small and the guards were ready to abuse the inmates. The New Yorker obtained video evidence of one of the attacks carried out by staff on Browder. Browder permitted the video to be published.
Of the thousand days Browder spent in Rikers, he says he spent over 780 days in solitary, the longest stretch lasted almost a year. Whilst he was in solitary he tried twice to take his own life. Rikers refuse to divulge how long he was in solitary.
The treatment within Rikers wasn’t the only area where Browder was let down. His case within the court system was adjourned several times. The thought of the police was, that the longer someone stayed in prison the more likely they were to admit their guilt. Several times prosecutors offered him a plea deal, each time he declined. Many black individuals are offered similar deals. Many of them admit guilt to something they didn’t do to get home.
Browder had entered the courts though through the Bronx criminal courts, which are chronically overwhelmed. At the time his case was one of 5695 that needed to be processed.
On July 28th 2010 he was taken to court and charged with robbery in the second degree and other crimes. It was alleged that he robbed a Mexican immigrant Roberto Boutista. He pushed him against a fence and took his rucksack, whilst punching him in the face. He refused to plead guilty to this and any lesser charge, he would prove his innocence in court if he needed to.
It would be unfair to say that his court-appointed defence attorney was useless. Defence attorneys are given many cases they struggle to work on even one, to an acceptable standard. However, it is fair to say that he could have done a lot more to get Browder home earlier. Browder states that his attorney never met with him once to discuss his case. Not in Rikers or via video call, which was commonly used. Each time Browder went to court the case was adjourned for another six weeks, the excuses piled up.
June 23rd 2011 — People not ready
August 24th 2011 — People not ready
November 4th 2011 — People not ready, the prosecutor on another trial
December 2nd 2011 — Prosecutor on another trial
June 29th 2012 — People not ready
September 28th 2012 — People not ready
November 2nd 2012 — People not ready
December 14th 2012 — People not ready, the prosecutor on holiday
By the end of 2012, Browder had been in jail for 961 days and stood before eight different judges.
Released at last
On May 29th, Browder stood before legendary judge Patricia Di Mango, she asked the prosecutors to justify their delays. They admitted to losing the victim of the robbery. It is thought that the prosecutors had lost touch with the victim early on in the case. They had requested the adjournments on the hope that Browder would change his mind and plead guilty. Di Mango released him on the understanding he would return a week later. When he returned, the prosecutor would either continue with the trial or dismiss the case.
One week later the case was dismissed and Browder was a free man again. Browder had spent three years in Rikers by then for a crime he never committed. This, unfortunately, was not the end of the pain that he suffered.
He had been repeatedly starved and beaten and had started to suffer from paranoia. He suspected the police were always after him. Was it paranoia or were the police trying to prove themselves right? Charging him with another crime after release would prove they had it right the first time. He spent several weeks in psychiatric hospitals trying to deal with the trauma.
On June 6th 2015, two years after release, he went into his parent’s house and pulled the air conditioning unit out of the wall. Winding a cable around his throat he jumped out of the hole feet first, hanging himself. His case is a symbol of everything that is broken in the criminal justice department. His story has been made into a documentary on Netflix which I urge everyone to watch, Time — The Kalief Browder Story. All should remember his name.