A young man who spent three years in Rikers Island prison without trial—almost two of them in solitary confinement—after being arrested at age 16 for allegedly stealing a backpack, committed suicide Saturday at age 22.
Kalief Browder's case, brought to light by New Yorker journalist Jennifer Gonnerman in an October 2014 profile, helped raise awareness about New York City's dysfunctional criminal justice system. Browder claimed to have endured beatings by guards as well as other inmates—allegations supported by surveillance footage that emerged earlier this year. While in prison, he attempted suicide multiple times before prosecutors ultimately dropped the charges against him in May 2013.
"He wanted the public to know what he had gone through, so that nobody else would have to endure the same ordeals," Gonnerman wrote on Sunday of Browder's desire to share his tragic story with the world. "His willingness to tell his story publicly—and his ability to recount it with great insight—ultimately helped persuade Mayor Bill de Blasio to try to reform the city’s court system and end the sort of excessive delays that kept him in jail for so long."
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But even as his revelations led to changes at the institutional and citywide level, Browder continued to grapple with personal trauma.
"People tell me because I have this case against the city I'm all right," he told the New Yorker last year. "But I'm not all right. I'm messed up. I know that I might see some money from this case, but that's not going to help me mentally. I'm mentally scarred right now. That's how I feel. Because there are certain things that changed about me and they might not go back."
As Browder's attorney Paul Prestia said in a phone interview with the LA Times on Sunday evening: "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. 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."
Blogger Shaun King, writing at Daily Kos, was even blunter: "The state of New York is responsible for this young man's death," King wrote. "Officials [at Rikers] ruined this boy's life. Hardly old enough to drive when they locked him up, the destroyed his soul in that prison."
In The Atlantic, Ta-Nehesi Coates agreed that Browder's story is one of systemic cruelty and racism.
"The numbers which people like me bring forth to convey the problems of our justice system are decent tools," Coates wrote on Monday. "But what the numbers can’t convey is what the justice system does to the individual black body."
He continued: "Kalief Browder was an individual, which is to say he was a being with his own passions, his own particular joys, his own strange demons, his own flaws, his own eyes, his own mouth, his own original hands. His family had their own particular stories of him. His friends must remember him in their own original way. The senseless destruction of this individual must necessarily be laid at the feet of the citizens of New York, because it was done by our servants, and it was done in our name."