There was a time when Kalief Browder was given a choice: Admit to a crime he didn’t commit and leave prison after already spending three years there, or maintain his innocence and potentially face 15 years behind bars.
Browder chose innocence.
“I felt like I had to fight, I had to fight,” Browder told HuffPost Live in 2013.
Browder was just 16 years old when he was picked up by police, accused of stealing a backpack and sent to Rikers Island without a trial or a conviction. There, life was a never-ending cycle of violence, hunger and fear perpetrated by his fellow inmates and wardens.
“It was like hell on Earth,” Browder told ABC News. “We were beaten, stomped by the correction officers. Hit with weapons.”
Browder’s court date kept getting pushed back indefinitely. The entire time, he insisted on his innocence.
His case never went to trial. The charges were eventually dismissed.
When Browder finally left prison in May 2013, he had been incarcerated for more than 1,000 days. He missed his high school graduation, his prom, a sister’s wedding and countless holidays with his family.
He tried to rebuild his life following his release, but it ended tragically: On Saturday, at age 22, Browder killed himself in his parents’ home.
“He was an intelligent and humble young man who had his childhood cut short by New York City’s criminal justice system, when he was unjustly arrested at the age of sixteen and locked in jail for three years,” Browder’s family said in a statement. “After fighting so hard to get out of jail — and then fighting on the outside to restart his life — he ultimately was unable to overcome his own pain and torment which emanated from his experiences in solitary confinement.”
At Rikers, Browder spent two of his three years in solitary confinement. There, as he frequently recounted later, Browder was routinely brutalized and starved by guards and subjected to virtually unrestrained violence by other prisoners.
On five or six occasions, Browder said, he attempted to take his own life in prison.
The first time, he said, prison guards cut him down from a noose fashioned from shredded bedsheets and beat him.
They “gave me a lot of punches, they stomped me on the bed,” Browder told HuffPost Live. “They starved me about two or three trays.”
Browder learned to quantify those periods of starvation by each tray of food withheld. On a relatively good day in solitary, if there is such a thing, Browder’s meals would arrive on trays brought to his cell — breakfast, lunch and dinner.
In a New Yorker investigation by Jennifer Gonnerman last fall, Browder’s brother noted that three meager prison meals a day wasn’t enough to satisfy him:
For one thing, he says, Browder was losing weight. “Several times when I visited him, he said, ‘They’re not feeding me,’ ” the brother told me. “He definitely looked really skinny.” In solitary, food arrived through a slot in the cell door three times a day. For a growing teenager, the portions were never big enough, and in solitary Browder couldn’t supplement the rations with snacks bought at the commissary. He took to begging the officers for leftovers: “Can I get that bread?” Sometimes they would slip him an extra slice or two; often, they refused.
But like everything, food — or lack thereof — became part of the landscape of his physical and psychological punishment.
“In solitary confinement they control your food and how much food you get,” Browder explained to HuffPost Live. “If you say anything that could tick them off in any type of way, some of them — which is a lot of them — what they do is they starve you. They won’t feed you, it’s already hard in there because if you get the three trays that you get every day you’re still hungry because I guess that’s part of the punishment.”
“If they starve you one tray that can really make an impact on you,” he added.
On one particularly bad occasion, Browder said, he was starved four trays in a row — breakfast, lunch, dinner, then breakfast again.
His story was astounding in part because of how long he was incarcerated on charges that were eventually dropped with no explanation. But what Browder experienced at one of the country’s most brutal correctional facilities was far from unusual.
A Department of Justice report on the use of force against teen inmates at Rikers, issued in August of 2014, found an “alarming rate” of uses of force against adolescent inmates.
“Violent inmate-on-inmate fights and assaults are commonplace, resulting in a striking number of serious injuries,” the report continued. “Correction officers resort to ‘headshots,’ or blows to an inmate’s head or facial area, too frequently.”
There is, the DOJ wrote, a pattern and practice at Rikers that “violates the constitutional rights of adolescent inmates.”
In prison, Browder clung to his sanity — barely.
But upon gaining his freedom, he seemed to slip between an effort to regain his life and the darkness that threatened to take over.
He had allies everywhere. An anonymous donor offered to pay for his community college education. He met with Rosie O’Donnell and Jay Z.
Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican presidential candidate, made Browder’s story a refrain on the campaign trail. Paul, in a statement, offered his condolences to Browder’s family.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who earlier this year announced reforms in an effort to end to the delays that led to Browder’s lengthy incarceration, offered his sympathies as well.
“Kalief’s story helped inspire our efforts on Rikers Island, where we are working to ensure no New Yorkers spend years in jail waiting for their day in court,” de Blasio said in a statement. “There is no reason he should have gone through this ordeal, and his tragic death is a reminder that we must continue to work each day to provide the mental health services so many New Yorkers need.”
Gonnerman, the journalist who visited with Browder several times during her reporting for the New Yorker, noted that he had recently been spending his time in and out of mental health institutions.
After a visit with Browder in the psych ward at St. Barnabas Hospital in January, Gonnerman described him as “gaunt, restless and deeply paranoid.”
He had recently thrown out his brand-new television, he explained, “because it was watching me.”
At a gathering in the family home Saturday, the family struggled to understand what went wrong, according to Gonnerman. Was it the anti-psychotic medication that exacerbated his suicidal ideation? Or had he stopped taking the drugs?
Clearly, the pain had been too much to bear.
“We ask the public to respect our privacy during this very difficult time, and we pray that Kalief’s death will not be in vain,” his family said. “We ask that the mayor and every public official in New York City take every action possible to ensure that no other person in New York City will ever again be forced to live through all that Kalief endured.”