On Kalief Browder Way: This Happens Every Day


From surveillance video of Kalief being assaulted in Rikers

Thursday, on what would have been his 24th birthday, an intersection in the Bronx was renamed in honor of Kalief Browder, the 16-year-old African-American boy flung into New York's grisly Rikers Island Prison in 2010 after he was wrongly accused of stealing a backpack and his family couldn't raise bail. At Rikers, known as a de-facto "penal colony" for its brutal conditions, Kalief endured three years of "documented torture," including two years in solitary, at the hands of both guards and fellow inmates. He was repeatedly beaten, assaulted, starved; he attempted suicide at least five times, and was punished each time; he faced unending legal delays until he became "an unheard voice," as though he "didn't exist." Throughout his harrowing ordeal, documented at length by Jennifer Gonnerman in The New Yorker, he maintained his innocence and refused all plea deals. In June 2014, the charges were suddenly dropped and he was freed. After struggling for two years with post-Rikers trauma, depression and paranoia, Kalief hanged himself outside his family's Bronx home in what Gonnerman calls an “American tragedy almost beyond words.” He was 22.

Kalief's short life and tragic death "put a human face" on New York's broken criminal justice system, personified by the barbarous Rikers, and sparked a host of actions. In quick succession, Spike TV aired “TIME: The Kalief Browder Story,” a six-part documentary series produced by Jay Z, and city and state officials stopped the practice of charging 16-and-17 year olds as adults or putting them in solitary, passed a bill to speed up pre-trial detention, and announced a 10-year plan to close Rikers, "New York’s premier institution of punishment (that) churns out human carnage." Still, Kalief's family and other prison reform advocates say there's a long way to go. His brother Akeem, who works to shutdownRikers and raise New York's age of criminal responsibility, notes the plan to close Rikers would see the "villainous" opening of four smaller jails that would likely change little in a toxic prison culture: "The walls of Rikers Island didn’t kill Kalief. Those officers that work there (did)." At Thursday's modest, rainy unveiling of Kalief Browder Way, Akeem vowed to Kalief to "do more in your honor and in your memory." But he'll be racing against time: Recounting his torments after he was freed, a weary Kalief told an interviewer, "This happens every day."

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