Kalief Browder should have celebrated his 30th birthday this past Thursday, May 25. Instead, he’s forever remembered as the teenage boy held on Rikers Island over a missing backpack.
The Bronx-based Browder was 16 years old when he entered NYC Department of Corrections’ custody; he was detained for three years at the jail complex after maintaining his innocence and refusing a guilty plea. Browder’s family was priced out of posting his initial $3,000 bail. His charges were ultimately dropped. He took his life on June 6, 2015, roughly two years after his release.
A day of action was held on Browder’s birthday outside City Hall in opposition to solitary confinement—over two-thirds of his time on Rikers was spent secluded in a tight room, which decarceration advocates directly attribute to his suicide, along with alleged abuses by guards and other detainees when he wasn’t isolated.
Sweeping reforms were made in Browder’s name ranging from the city’s end of solitary confinement for detained young New Yorkers to then-Pres. Barack Obama’s ban of the practice for federally-imprisoned juveniles. But attendees don’t want anyone in city jails to go through what Browder did. His brother, Akeem, told the Amsterdam News that such change starts at the ballot box.
“The only thing we can do is continuously remind the government of New York City that we’re not going to forget Kalief,” said Akeem Browder. “And if [elected officials] can’t make those changes, we’re going to vote you out. This is an election year. Elected officials that want to keep their jobs need to keep their commitments.”
Attending council members advocated for Intro 549, which bans solitary confinement of any kind in city jails.
“Here in New York state, we don’t have the death penalty,” said Councilmember Tiffany Cabán. “There’s consensus, we decided as a city that [the] death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment. Solitary confinement is a death penalty.”
RELATED: NYC to pay $3 million to settle Kalief Browder lawsuit
“Kalief Browder should be here, celebrating with his brother [and] everybody who loved him [for] his 30th birthday,” said Councilmember Crystal Hudson. “New York City talks a good game. But New York City does not walk the walk…we have been fighting for the opportunity to vote on banning solitary confinement.
“Everywhere else that has solitary confinement, we call them out. Americans call other countries out…for doing the exact same thing we continue to do here.”
Corrections officer unions oppose most restrictions on solitary confinement while NYC Department of Corrections Commissioner Louis Molina reportedly argues the practice is all but officially abolished—he sees restrictive housing, which allows at least seven hours outside a cell, as the alternative. While less restrictive, decarceration advocates see the new approach as solitary confinement rebranded. A corrections employee was reportedly fired last year after Rikers detainee Elijah Muhammad died just days after he was isolated for roughly 30 hours, which is against policy.
Intro 549 received a groundswell of political support last fall during the Rikers death crisis that ultimately led to 19 people dying in or soon after DOC custody in 2022. The bill developed supermajority support to counter any veto by Mayor Eric Adams, who opposes direct solitary confinement but is a proponent of similar practices the bill would ban. But a vote remains in the future over half a year later.
A spokesperson from the #HALTsolitary campaign believes Intro 549 is still on track.
Akeem Browder says beyond the policy and bureaucracy, the public should consider his brother’s lost potential, stolen from the carceral system.
“I’d like people to think where he would be at this point,” he said. “Maybe he’d be an attorney. Would he be a politician [or] a teacher? He could have been anything, just like everyone else’s kids.”
Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting https://bit.ly/amnews1.
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