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Cries for justice after Kalief Browder suicide

Cyril Josh Barker | 6/18/2015, 10:36 a.m.
Backlash continues over the suicide of 22-year-old Kalief Browder, the young Black man who hung himself June 6 after being ...
Kalief Browder

Backlash continues over the suicide of 22-year-old Kalief Browder, the young Black man who hung himself June 6 after being held for three years on Rikers Island awaiting trial on a robbery charge that was eventually dismissed.

The situation dates back to 2010 when Browder was accused of stealing a backpack in the Bronx when he was 16. He was arrested and unable to make the $10,000 bail, leading him to spend three years behind bars awaiting trial.

After his release in 2013, he struggled with mental health problems, which relatives and jail reform advocates say were caused by the “inhumane” conditions to which he was subjected.

At the notorious New York jail, Browder was beaten numerous times by correction officers and other inmates, and spent 400 days in solitary confinement. He had tried to commit suicide multiple times before his release.

Browder’s case received media attention after he was the subject of an article in the New Yorker. The article put a spotlight on numerous people at Rikers who were awaiting trial unable to make bail. A lawsuit was filed, alleging Browder’s constitutional right to a speedy trial was violated.

In a statement, Mayor Bill de Blasio said his office is working to change things so that suspects don’t spend so much time awaiting trial on Rikers.

“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,” de Blasio said in a statement. “On behalf of all New Yorkers, we send our condolences to the Browder family during this difficult time.”

The issue of people awaiting trial on Rikers is an all-too-familiar story for many people. Most are “serving time” for crimes for which they have not been proven guilty, all because they cannot make bail.

“Kalief’s treatment by the criminal justice system demonstrates how arbitrarily and routinely it dehumanizes and criminalizes members of our communities at every step, from initial contact with police to the Bronx district attorney to the failed ‘correctional’ system,” said Priscilla Gonzalez, spokeswoman for Communities United for Police Reform. “All of these parts of the criminal justice system victimized Kalief, robbing him of so much by subjecting him to grave injustices.”

Hasan Harris knows all too well the affects of being kept in jail before even getting a trial. He was arrested in 2008 in the Bronx on charges that included conspiracy and didn’t receive bail. He spent four years awaiting trial before being found not guilty by a jury.

“It was like my dream [was] snatched from me. They took me away from my kids, stole my life from me and destroyed my relationship. It ruined my career. At the same time, I don’t have any regrets because I learned a lot,” he said.

While Harris has been able to get his life back on track, many are not so fortunate, dealing with the emotional scars of being behind bars while knowing they are innocent when their case hasn’t gone to trial.

This week, approximately 200 mourners and jail reform advocates gathered at Union Square to honor the memory of Browder.

Standing shoulder to shoulder, mourners young and old chanted, “No Justice! No Peace!” while holding signs that read, “Black Lives Matter! Justice for Kalief,” “Rikers Island Killed Kalief” and “Close Rikers. It Kills Young Men of Color.”

“All of our lives are in danger,” argued Tyrrell Muhammad from the Correctional Association of New York, pleading to de Blasio’s administration for accountability and to reform Rikers. “When [police] take our young men off the streets and put them under conditions of inhumane treatment, what they’re saying is that our children are nothing. There is a universal cry for change.”

Browder’s death comes just as the U.S. Department of Justice and the city are close to agreeing on a reform plan that would change the “deep-seated culture of violence” that has dominated Rikers for decades. Last year, the department sent a scathing report to de Blasio, arguing that correction officers violate teen inmates’ constitutional rights and routinely abused them.