“She was a woman of incredible grace and compassion who tirelessly fought for justice for her son Kalief and who championed the civil rights of others in our city,” Presita said. “But the stress from this crusade coupled with the strain of the pending lawsuits against the city and the pain from the death were too much for her to bear.
“In my opinion, she literally died of a broken heart.”
Kalief Browder killed himself in 2015, five years after his slog through the New York City justice system began.
Although he was never convicted of a crime, most of his time in jail was spent in solitary confinement. Before being jailed, he had been accused of robbing a man of his backpack in May 2010, when Browder was just 16. The teenager’s family was unable to pay his $3,000 bail. Caught in the city’s clogged court system, Browder was left in jail as his mental and physical health deteriorated.
The charges against Browder were eventually dropped, and his story became a rallying cry for criminal-justice reformists trying to end solitary confinement and racial profiling.
At the time of his death, Browder was attending a community college in the Bronx and had a 3.5 grade-point average, but he was unable to move beyond the psychological trauma that continued to haunt him, CNN reported.
“Prior to going to jail, I never had any mental illnesses,” Browder once told HLN. “I never tried to hurt myself, I never tried to kill myself, I never had any thoughts like that. I had stressful times prior to going to jail, but not like during jail. That was the worst experience that I ever went through in my whole life.”
He had just turned 22 when he hanged himself. The Browder family has filed a $20 million lawsuit against the city, its police department, the Bronx district attorney and multiple corrections officers.
In January, President Obama announced in an op-ed published in The Washington Post that he was banning solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons. To explain the basis of his decision, Obama began by outlining Browder’s troubling story from alleged backpack thief to Rikers inmate, where, Obama wrote, “he reportedly endured unspeakable violence at the hands of inmates and guards — and spent nearly two years in solitary confinement.”
Solitary confinement, the president wrote, “is increasingly overused on people such as Kalief, with heartbreaking results.”
This week, Joseph Ponte, the New York City Correction Commissioner, announced in a Gotham Gazette op-ed that the city will end the practice of placing inmates between ages 16 and 21 in solitary confinement.
“This is an unprecedented milestone in New York State correctional history and, even more important, across the nation,” Ponte wrote. “To date, no other city or state has accomplished comparable punitive-segregation reforms for the 19-21 year-old age group.”
Just days before Venida Browder’s death, rapper Jay Z announced plans to produce a six-part documentary on her son’s life, the Daily News reported. “Time: The Kalief Browder Story” is scheduled for release next year.
“This young man got dealt a horrible hand in the way it happened, and [we hope] that his story and his life inspires others and saves other lives,” Jay Z said, according to the Daily News. “I think it’s very clear solitary confinement for a 16-year-old is wrong to every single person in here. It’s inhumane.”
Despite the criminal-justice reform and plans for memorializing her son’s struggle, Venida Browder’s fight carried a heavy toll, relatives said.
That was especially true after her son’s suicide.
“My mother has been holding herself strong, but she’s heartbroken,” Kalief’s brother, Akeem Browder, told takepart.com in May.
Despite her immense pain, Venida Browder managed to turn her agony into activism, supporters said. Browder, described by the New Yorker magazine as “fairly shy” in a story published this week, found her voice.
“Although she had serious health problems,” Jennifer Gonnerman wrote for the magazine, “she traveled to Washington, D.C., in July of 2015 to attend a press conference for ‘Kalief’s Law,’ a bill intended to improve the treatment of young people in prison.”
Browder also made time for reporters, participated in forums about criminal justice and joined the advisory board of an organization called Stop Solitary for Kids, Gonnerman noted.
New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito came to know Browder’s name, as well as her son’s.
“Venida Browder was a loving mother who fought tirelessly for justice,” Mark-Viverito said in a statement. “Despite the city failing her and Kalief, she firmly believed that we could work to create a more fair and just system. She was a champion of criminal justice reform.
“Venida was a woman of immense courage and boundless optimism. When you were with her, it was impossible to not feel hopeful about a better future. It is now up to us to continue her work. My deepest condolences to the Browder family.”
Browder was interviewed this year by the Marshall Project for a video series called “We Are Witnesses” that seeks to document stories of people who have become ensnared by the criminal justice system.
“Imagine being locked up 23 hours a day,” she said. “This is your life. Four walls; that’s it. He couldn’t take it. They told him, ‘We’re going to break you.’
“That’s what they told my baby — that they’re going to break him. And, in reality, they did.”
Gonnerman wrote this week that Kalief Browder told his mother that he shared his story so that nobody else would have to experience the same thing.
After his death, Gonnerman wrote, “his mother was driven by the same impulse.”
“She felt compelled to carry out Kalief’s message,” Prestia, the family attorney, told Gonnerman. “Kalief’s message became his legacy — and that became her legacy.”