Kalief Browder was held without trial for three years in New York City’s notorious Rikers’ Island jail after he was wrongfully arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack. During that time, guards rained abuse and torture on Kalief, who was just 16 years old when he was picked up by police in the Bronx. Enduring solitary confinement for over a year, Kalief nonetheless insisted on his innocence, refusing to take a plea deal for a crime he did not commit.
After his release, Kalief’s case gained wide attention as he began to speak out in interviews and reporters investigated his case, including Jennifer Gonnerman in the New Yorker. But tragically, on June 6, 2015, the Bronx Community College student took his own life at his home.
Kalief’s older brother, Akeem Browder, is an activist in the Bronx. He spoke to Lee Wengraf and Lichi D’Amelio about what his brother endured—and the family’s fight for justice.
Your brother took a heroic stand in resisting his wrongful imprisonment, insisting on his innocence for three years. Because of his actions, some changes have already been made in the jail system—or authorities claim they have. Can you talk about the stand he took and why it was important?
He simply didn’t want to admit to something that he knew he didn’t do. I don’t think it was a matter of “I know the law, so I want to sue you,” or anything. He was a kid. He was 16 years old when he was arrested.
He didn’t learn much from going to jail. He didn’t have school because he was imprisoned. He didn’t do it because of learning what’s right or wrong—it was just, “I didn’t want to say I did something that I didn’t do.” As he said, “I don’t want to be considered a criminal”—and then everyone looks at you like you’re some kind of monster. He just wanted to do right by himself.
Probably more than half the population on Rikers is incarcerated for something that they’ve just accepted—that they’ve taken a plea for—which they probably didn’t do, but saw no other way out. The tactics that are used—whether it’s to scare you to take a sentence worse than what they originally offered you…when it came to Kalief, the fact that he didn’t do it made it more noticeable.
How could you take a 16-year-old and keep him for so long—ruin his childhood and his ability to grow up as a normal kid in normal society and put him in there for so long? It’s animalistic what they did. Something needs to change. Justice is totally blind when it comes to Black and Brown kids.
I did hear Barack Obama talking about prison reform and pardoning people. Was it because of the brutality against so many inmates in the correctional system? I don’t know. But in the case of Kalief, what happened to him was only noticed because we got the video of the prison guards not protecting Kalief when he was being jumped by 15 inmates.
Two officers were there. Were they were capable of stopping what happened? They were, I mean, you don’t have emergency buttons on your side for no reason. Yet not one officer reached for that button. But if an inmate stands up to them, they immediately push the button, and they have an Emergency Service Unit on Rikers that takes underground tunnels and comes up out of nowhere in the blink of an eye.
So why didn’t they help Kalief in that moment? When it comes to what has to happen on Rikers, it just needs to be shut down. We do need a facility to hold the violent offenders, but it doesn’t have to be one where we hold violent offenders and nonviolent offenders together.
I’ve personally experienced being put in a cell where the person sitting next to me literally had his shirt and face splattered with blood from a fight—and I was sitting there because my license was suspended. Maybe Rikers doesn’t need to be closed down if they change the criteria for hiring correctional officers, mental health workers and sergeants and commissioners there. But if they don’t change all that, then shut down the whole jail.
Some of the people reading this may not be familiar with your brother’s case: Do you want to say more about what your brother experienced at Rikers?
In a nutshell, Kalief was wrongfully arrested. Those officers who originally arrested him on the assumption that he stole a backpack—they had no victim. That was the first thing. Later on, we were told that the victim was deported, so it leads me to believe that since we never saw the person the backpack supposedly belonged to, there never actually was a real person.
The cops just saw two Black kids walking down the street, coming from a party too late at night, and they decided to stop them—to mess with them with the hopes of finding drugs on them. They wrongfully stopped them, wrongfully arrested them—arrested my brother on unlawful, made-up charges.
The charges originally said that the person they were looking for stole a backpack two weeks before, but they kept changing the details of the story. That’s why I can’t believe there was an actual person. If the story was valid, it wouldn’t have held up in court—a grand jury would have thrown out their stories. The whole case would have been dropped.
So from the beginning, he was wrongfully arrested and put in unlawful detention. Then, he was in jail, going back and forth to court to see a judge, with a district attorney who was never ready, from the beginning to the end, when they finally threw out the case.
So he was on Rikers for three years, in solitary confinement for a stretch of 309 days, and then off and on, they didn’t feed him for several meals at a time. When I visited him, I said, “Kalief, you’re looking small, what’s going on?” He would tell me that they wouldn’t feed him, and when they did feed him, it would be a tray of cabbage.
He would try to be lighthearted about it. Sometimes they would give him bread, and sometimes it was just string beans on a tray.
Was this to punish him?
I can’t even explain it. Why would you do that to someone? He’s already in jail, in isolation. If you saw him, how skinny he looked, it was depressing. He would be in the prison jumpsuit, so I would see how skinny he got.
They tortured him. And they harassed him after he got out. Cops would sit outside my mother’s house, watching Kalief come and go. They sent him threatening text messages. They would point at him in a threatening way. They watched him all the time. So of course he became paranoid—they made my brother paranoid. Rikers created this other Kalief.
When New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was elected, he brought in Joseph Ponte as head of Corrections—he was supposedly a big reformer for solitary confinement. One of the things de Blasio was talking about was reforming Rikers. They changed the rules, so that in the future, prisoners must be 21 to be put in solitary. But now they’re talking about reducing visitation. And several mentally ill prisoners have died because of abuse or neglect by the guards. It seems that the reforms are just way too little too late, and they haven’t really done much of anything at all.
They can’t lie to the public and still have people being able to prove that the city may talk a good game, but my son is still in jail or isolation. I don’t care what Bill de Blasio says at all—I care about the results and what you can see is going on. Right after Kalief died, we did a vigil at the Manhattan Detention Center (MDC), and one family commented online afterward: “They have done nothing because my son is still in isolation.”
They’re just talking to the public—they don’t really care what we think. They only care what the high-price people think—the politicians or whoever is funding them. If they make it sound like they’re doing good, or bringing justice or reform, then they did their job. But to us average folks, they’re not doing their job.
At that rally at the MDC, there was a man who came up and told me that he can’t find his best friend, who was on Rikers. His friend had been arrested for a month and a half when we talked, and he still couldn’t locate him.
De Blasio is a big liar, just like Bloomberg—he was even worse. If I lie to an officer, I would be arrested, put on trial and thrown in jail. But de Blasio and the police—they’re protected by their badge or their oath of office. That’s not doing anything for us.
So that’s a double standard of justice?
It is. How do we stop it? That’s the question: How do we stop something like this from ever happening again?
Communicating with the public is a major part, but that’s not the only part, because if we just went from neighborhood to neighborhood, and we made every single person aware, what’s our next step? That’s what I’m trying to figure out. Once we rally, our next step is what?
Maybe we should be going to these judges’ neighborhoods, making it uncomfortable for them, just as they’re making everyone else uncomfortable in the neighborhoods where they convict or pass judgment. Look at everything they enjoy. They enjoy being New Yorkers. But they’re not in the jail that Kalief was in for three years, being a slave, basically. I mean they’re not suffering any of that when their kids get in trouble.
Where do you see the fight for your brother going next? You spoke at the rally that justice had yet to be done. Can you talk a little bit about that, and how your fight connects with other issues?
I believe there are two fronts. The first is with our attorney and what he’s doing to make this case have a national reach. He’s speaking to CNN, and he goes out on numerous different fronts to put the word out—to put the message out that this happened to Kalief.
Kalief was unique in this situation. There are a lot of situations and victims who come from Rikers Island, who experience police brutality, but the officers in a lot of those situations end your life immediately. Eric Garner—they choked him to death. That lasted for however long it did. Kalief was tortured for three years.
That’s not to say it’s more severe than anyone else’s case, but it’s unique in a way that they had a human being—not just a human being, but a child—in their grasp, and they did nothing about it for three years. So our attorney is handling it on the front of building mass awareness, spreading the word on how much injustice is taking place with the Department of Corrections. That’s where the majority of my family is going.
But then there’s the route that I go. I’m not waiting for the celebrities to hear about it. I want to go to the streets where the people can hear it, and march with me, because it may be your brother or sister or mother or cousin or family member or loved one today or tomorrow. So why wait?
Before this happened to Kalief, I was already a part of a group called Why Accountability. I knew the importance of organizing, because it happened to me. So I knew the importance of how messed up police officers can be. And we’re going to bring it to the district attorney’s office. We’re going to bring it to Rikers.
My mother just went to Washington, D.C., with a congresswoman to speak on prison reform, and Obama was out there, too, to speak on the issue as well. My mother was invited because of what happened with Kalief and because Obama was going to be speaking.
When they arrested Kalief, he missed out on my older brother’s two babies being born. When he came home, it changed his mindset. He went off to the store and bought so many presents for them for missing those years. He was going all out for them. He was trying to make up for lost time.
They took life away from him for three years. Food that he couldn’t eat or experiences for three years, going to Six Flags or whatever. He missed out on all that, but when he came home, he stayed in his room, and he didn’t really come out. The most he had was eating with my mother and then going to school. He bought a bike and was literally going from point A to point B, and B to A.
What you were saying about what we can do in moving beyond rallies seems to be about accountability—because those judges and those prosecutors have just as much blood on their hands as the correctional officers.
Really, it’s all about accountability. Once a month, there’s a community council meeting in everyone’s neighborhood. The community has the privilege of going to these meetings and holding the police and officials accountable for what happens in that precinct.
This is accountability, when I watch your every move. You’re representing us in our neighborhood. You’re supposedly protecting our neighborhood. But getting people to actually go to hold people accountable is crazy hard. However, now it’s come to the point where we need to regain our rights.
Everyone who is a part of any community in the Bronx is affected by what’s going on because they’ve experienced some kind of police brutality, some kind of wrongful imprisonment, or just staying in jail for too long. It takes a year before your case is even heard, so for a year, you’re guaranteed that you’ve lost your job.
There are so many incidents I’ve witnessed where people are in jail for minuscule things—whether your case is about smoking weed or carrying weed, or sleeping on a train, or making a wrong turn. What my family is trying to do is to make wrongful imprisonment and incarceration illegal—to put you in isolation, which is already messed up, and wait a minute, this was illegal to begin with.
Transcription by Ben Lassiter and Karen Domínguez Burke