Kalief Browder, the young man whose three-year imprisonment on Rikers Island without trial made him a central figure in criminal justice reform, committed suicide on Saturday. His death was confirmed by Jennifer Gonnerman, the journalist whose profile of Browder in The New Yorker made national headlines last year.
In her earlier piece, Gonnerman examined Browder’s imprisonment at the notorious New York penitentiary, at 16 years old, for alledgedly stealing a backbpack. Starting in 2010, Browder waited three years without trial at Rikers for a crime he did not commit, during which time he was abused by both imates and prison staff (video evidence surfaced in April), was forced to spend nearly two years in solitary confinement, and attempted suicide more than once.
Browder’s harrowing story, and the public response to it, inspired mayor Bill de Blaiso to committ to city court reform, which aimed to remedy the trial delays that Browder and many others experience.
Browder’s death was announced in an obituary by Gonnerman, in which she described visiting Browder’s family’s home after his death:
His relatives recounted stories he’d told them about being starved and beaten by guards on Rikers. They spoke about his paranoia, about how he often suspected that the cops or some other authority figures were after him. His mother explained that the night before he told her, “Ma, I can’t take it anymore.” “Kalief, you’ve got a lot of people in your corner,” she told him.
The announcement inspired responses throughout the national media. Said The Atlantic’s Ta-Neshi Coates:
This is more than mistaken policy. This is cruelty—the long war to save the blacks from themselves. Browder was not “the blacks.” He was his mother and father’s child—an individual. And yet for reasons as old as America, he was not treated like one.
In an interview with the LA Times, Paul V. Prestia, the attorney who represented Browder in lawsuits against varous New York City agencies, remarked:
“I think what caused the suicide was his incarceration and those hundreds and hundreds of nights in solitary confinement, where there were mice crawling up his sheets in that little cell,” Prestia said in a phone interview Sunday evening. “Being starved, and not being taken to the shower for two weeks at a time … those were direct contributing factors.… That was the pain and sadness that he had to deal with every day, and I think it was too much for him.”
In a testament to how far Browder’s story reached, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) offered condolences as well in a speech in New Hampshire:
“So when you see people and you see some of this anger at people in the streets and you’re like, ‘Why are they so unhappy?’ Think about Kalief Browder and think about how his friends must feel about American justice, how his parents must feel and about how his community feels,” Paul said Saturday in Concord, N.H.